Cartoons began for me as amateurish stick drawings and may be now a way for me into the mainstream. This is being written in the first half of 2013, and what was initially part of a therapeutic and cathartic exploration, has now developed into a tool that is leading beyond mental health. As well as composing cartoons that are not about mental health, the actual mental health mainstay cartoons are leading me into a world beyond the day centre, caring staff, and the community mental health team.
So, I suppose, there are two strands that have taken me on. There is the strand of the subject matter, which is largely, but not exclusively, about how mental health has inpacted on my life. Then there is the technical, even it might be described as the technological, journey which has run alongside. I have no training in IT beyond the rudimantary many years ago, and I gave up art in my second year at grammar school where I was expected to thrive at double chemistry, physics and maths. By the time they realised I was not up for that, it was too late to return to art, which was at my school held in even lower regard than history, geography or languages. Only the failures did art.
I am a great advocate for the power of personal narrative in mental health, ask anyone who knows me. It is a deeply therapeutic activity to write about, to draw, to compose a song or music about, to make a poem about, to dance about, episodes which may be very difficult or disturbing. My trademark is narrative by digital cartoons. It is the action of making a creation, and also to show on display these challenging times. It is also very useful for those influential people who may be able to make use of what you have to say. Peter Chadwick springs to mind. There is a body of thought that maintains that the success of our reality is in fact a 100 to 1 chance, that there are a miriad of possible meanings to life. So to hear what made up our psychotic realities is in fact very useful. It enables a perspective that gives power to shared psychotic and delusional episodes. It enables us to go beyond looking at schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxieties, and other psychiatirtic disorders as dysfunctional, as pathological, and as something that has one end only :- to be cured. I am lucky that I have to some extent come through the bad times of delusion and paranoia, and am able to take the views I express.
In that context, therefore, I find satisfaction in creating cartoons about quite a number of aspects of psychiatirc life. I have posted nearly 40 cartoons on my slideshare page, at www.slideshare.net/andrewsasylumlife. This in itself is an illustration of how I got here. Dave Harris, then manager of 73a Centre in Bexhill on the Sussex coast, found me this free-to-use hosting website. I have since become used to using hosting websites, including Omeka, where this narrative is posted. Dave found me slideshare when I was contemplating how I was going to get my increasing number of digital cartoons online. I was looking at a process which would be costly in time and money. Of learning how to create a website and then to purchase the software and domain etc. So slideshare turned out to be ideal. No way would I have found that myself, and Dave made this step forward for me, as he has done at many other junctures. I didn't have to be told twice.
I got my first computer in the 20th century. It was a desktop 286 and had to be assembled by someone else. (In fact I did have a Personal Computer in the 1980's. It was a Commodore and ran through my spare TV, and had a tape transport. It ran on Basic programming language. I wrote a few things on it and made it play sounds from horses' hooves to heart attack machine to bagpipes. I apologise to my neighbours for the unacceptable levels of noise I produced with that. I also got a Sinclair, but didn't have time to get to grips with that before my house was repossessed.) So my main recent use of computers began with that 286 which I had in my bedroom in about 1998. I lived in a large flat but in very poor condition. My clothes would go mouldy over the winter and the glass was about to fall out of some of the windows. When I got into some decent accommodation, I had got myself a second hand laptop. It was a good place to live but with not enough space for a table or desk, hence the more compact laptop. With the 286 I did stick drawings in Microsoft Paint. I drew pictures of scenes from asylum life and lots of pics of people having injections in the backside. I did not know how to save these efforts onto the hard drive, so I just printed them off, as I had a printer with the 286. Then I got them bound with spine binders at the business centre in St Leonards Road in Bexhill, thanks to Sandra who worked there. I have about four volumes of these images from that time. By 2004 I had a laptop and had been taught how to save pics to the hard drive, and made them into folders. I burned the images onto floppy discs and then onto cd's, as the laptop had external drives. I began to show the pics to carers and to send them to people in the post. I kept the images on a memory stick. I was encouraged by the responses. Then Dave Harris improved my technique and I began to produce full colour screens, beyond the stick image phase. I had used Windows 95 and 98, and then had Windows 2000 on the HP laptop. Then the facilitator of the art classes at 73a Centre, Jill Hartman, introduced me to her husband and I learned PowerPoint. I was able to ask Dave Harris anything I needed to know to get good at PPT, on a daily basis. With PowerPoint I was able to assemble linked slides to make a coherant narrative, with a storyline, for the first time. I did this in a number of versions, and burned cd's of my stories. I sent these out to people I knew and showed them to staff at 73a Centre and at the art group I went to at the church hall in St Leonards run by Janet Crosby and her associate Cat. Then Dave showed me how to use Paint Shop Pro. This enabled me to use propriety speech bubbles, as I had previous to that used hand drawn bubbles. The cartoons were taking shape. My primitive stick drawings are typically those as in Asylum Life vols 1 to 4. The transition slide shows are around the time of Rude Boys 2. The great advance with Paint Shop Pro is that I am able to use layers. This is a great help to doing moving images, animation or my version of that. I have been very happy with that degree of technology. I can do basic drawings in Paint still, and if I am in need of extra reliability for a series of related slides, I get out my A4 writing tablet which I got from Aldi supermarket, it's a great assistance. Then I can do complex (for me) scenes with the layers from Paint Shop Pro and use their excellent speech bubbles. And incorporate it all into a PowerPoint slide show which I can now post on the internet at my slideshare page - it's free to use and is a great tool. A while back I used to send out Emails to my contacts list with my latest cartoon. However people now know what I do - it's usually got a picture of someone getting an injection in the backside. So they know that every so often there will be a new cartoon at www.slideshare.net/andrewsasylumlife. In early 2013 I went over 15,000 views in total. As well as the encouragement I've had technically, I've had a great deal of useful advice from Jill Hartman, from Janet Crosby, from Cat and from Phil Flockhart who led art groups at 73a Centre for a few years. Phil and I have sense of humour around some of my titles, for example 'Get Well Soon' - no, you weren't about to get well at any time soon in an asylum.
What are my favourite cartoons? Or to be more accurate, what cartoons have most to say? 'Get Well Soon 2 (Akathisia)' has perhaps the strongest message as it illustrates the horrors of the side effect, and there is also a touch of humour. 'Rude Boys 2 (Strange Days)' rocks up with a title partly saying Hi to The Doors, and this one is about the brutality of the Broadmoor-trained teddy boy being let loose on vulnerable adults. It's got a lot to say, as has 'Rude Boys 3 (Bogof)', which is about the two-in-one injection in the bum: two for the price of one. 'A Few Degrees Below Par' says a lot about students ending on the scrapheap of an NHS mental hospital, maybe that's one that's most relevant to wasted time in my life.
Mainstreaming 1: One of the suggestions from Phil Flockhart and especially from Janet Crosby was to make a graphic book of my cartoons. This finally came about in 2012, following encouragement and facilitation from Jerome Carson and Hannah Cordle with Oivind Hovland. The book is a compendium of extracts from various cartoon slide shows which are made into one new story. The title is Side Effects. I had a book launch at Together's HQ in London in early 2013, and I am able to sell some books. So this is a way that I can become independent, it has that potential. If I can find my way round the bidding process, I may be able to produce a second graphic book via the East Sussex County Council grants prospectus. So the whole process stands a chance of becoming self-sufficient.
Mainstreaming 2: Some of my cartoons are not about mental health. Some are snatches of animation, and I also have made collections for calendars for a couple of years. These are on my slideshare page and are hand-drawn Paint images derived from photographs I have taken. They get a number of views. I have also done some work for my landlords, who are a housing association. I have been to meetings such as on equality and diversity, and have taken notes on the procedings and have done a few sketches of the event. I have then created a cartoon of the participants with speech bubbles with text from what was said. So they are a kind of cartoon minutes. I have started a separate slideshare page for these cartoons. That is outside the mental health context, and I have been pleased with the reception from my landlords and others who have viewed the slide show cartoons. I have used the same techniques as those mentioned above to produce these non-mental health efforts.
For a while I led a service user group engaged in digital art. We called ourselves Downs Digital Art as we met for a while in a church hall in a place called the Downs. This in itself was a story, as we were banned from using the day centre after hours. We had used the day centre after hours for two or three years. While the manager of the centre, our protector, was on leave, I had a communication from the area manager. She said she was unaware that we, as service users, were being let loose at the day centre after hours. She said I was the leader of the group and asked me for the names of the other group members. This I declined to do. The centre was used by other groups out of hours, for music and alternative therapies, the problem was that we were identified as service users. This in the context of the time where there was encouragement for statutory facilities to be made available for community use. Also at the same time there was increased recognition of the stigmatisation of mental health service user groups. So to be stigmatised and discriminated against as service users by the NHS and Social Services was quite a bad scene. We got the use of the church hall and called ourselves after that place. In time when this dreadful discriminatory person, who was a woman and from and ethnic minority herself, had moved on we returned to the day centre. We posted our work online using slideshare and put on exhibitions at the local museum, and featured in the local press. Civic dignitaries came to our exhibitions, typically around World Mental Health Day each October 10th, and we were very pleased to welcome them. The group lasted for five or six very productive years, and we still have £72 left in our bank account, but meet no longer.
To finish on a note of caution. I am comfortable with illustrating my time in the asylums with my cartoons. They knew at each discharge that I would do minor offences and then be returned :- that was their way of dealing with you - only as an old lag. So my offences were connected to vagrancy, and doing damage to get my rights eventually from the NHS. I am not proud of them , I wish society worked differently. But what if someone had an offending profile that was a lot more edgy? For example, a sexual offender or a violent offender. I know of people who are released on the revolving door that exists still today. They are freed not in the knowledge that they will steal petrol or take and drive away someone else's vehicle (TDA). They are freed in the knowledge that they will commit perhaps serious 'index' offences against a backdrop of medication with which they will not comply. So how do I feel about their histories and deeds being portrayed in public view, perhaps using the formula I have developed to make my cartoons? How would the victims feel to have their perpetrators make art of perhaps horrendous personal or sexual offences? What if these should be posted on social media? I'm not quite sure how I feel about that - uncomfortable I have to say. But I can see it as a possibility. So there needs to be some protocol and safeguards for offenders to be encouraged on a route which is indeed personally empowering... is that what we want without restriction?