A drop in the ocean: Beth Hopkins

15 September 2016

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their 

This post comes from Beth Hopkins, an artist showing work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition.

I was honoured to be asked to create a piece for ‘Reclaiming Asylum‘. It’s been quite a journey to arrive at my piece, an embroidered pillow case from Bethlem Hospital.

The brief was to create a piece exploring the notion of asylum: what might constitute refuge, sanctuary and protection today? Before my piece grew into what it is now, I had several other ideas; all of them intensely personal. For some time I considered revisiting the room I was sectioned in on the intensive care ward. I had very clear, strange memories of how ill I was there.

[object Object]

Beth’s pillowcase.

I had been brought to Bethlem Hospital by the police, under section 136 (the law that allows them to take you from a public place to a place of safety). At the time, I wanted to leave the hospital and didn’t believe I needed to be there; it was a case of enforced sanctuary. Retrospectively I can see that I was vulnerable. I did not have my usual understanding of risk and needed to be protected.

There were several motifs in the room as I remembered it which I could have developed into a piece, along the lines of an installation. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that going back to that room could have a dangerous impact on my mental health. And there might be better, more indirect ways of revisiting what happened.

 One of Beth's totems, small sculptures made from all kinds of found objects.
[object Object]

One of Beth’s totems, small sculptures made from all kinds of found objects.

I sat down and wrote out everything I could remember about my time in the room. It was something I thought about often, but had never written down. An image that remains particularly clear is a rubber mattress with a cigarette burn in the corner: the sheet pulled away during a struggle which ended with the nurses injecting me with the sedative haloperidol.

My usual practice explores the Thames through objects I find on the foreshore. I begin by beach combing and then I respond to the objects I find. I realised that what I needed was something used in the hospital every day, something that I could respond to. I asked Sam (curator at Bethlem Gallery) if it would be possible to get hold of a hospital sheet and perhaps a pillow case.

Sam came through for me and I began embroidering my story onto a pillow cover. Beds are highly symbolic to me: when I am manic I cannot sleep, but when I am depressed I can sleep for over eighteen hours a day. It is both a source of sanctuary, a place to hide from the world, and a place where negative thoughts become magnified, leading to far worse depression. The hospital pillow I was using would have had many sleepless patients lay their heads on it.

There were still many decisions to make: should it be black thread or coloured? Should it include images or just text? I looked at the embroidery of Agnes Richter who had been a patient at an Austrian Asylum in the 1890s. She had embroidered her thoughts onto a straitjacket during her time in the asylum. Some parts of her jacket are unreadable as they have been over stitched so many times. I considered turning the pillow case inside out so you could only see the back of the stitching, but I felt the integrity of the piece depended on my being frank about what had happened.

[object Object]

Agnes Richter’a embroidered jacket.

At times I found it hard embroidering my story onto the cushion, so to give myself a break I also embroidered song lyrics (Jeff Buckley’s Lilac Wine) and a poetry (Emily Dickinson’s I felt a Funeral, in my brain), both of which I would repeat to myself whilst trying to sleep in hospital, focusing on remembering the words instead of counting sheep.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

(Emily Dickinson, I felt a funeral in my brain)

Whilst I stitched I also began to think about the original brief. What are asylum and sanctuary to me? I began to form a Manifesto for a New Asylum and embroidered this onto the cushion too.

‘Women’s work’ has often been considered a form of oppression, but equally it can be used to give voice. Agnes Richter and many other asylum patients the world over would have spent their lives sewing, locked in institutions. It would have been a diversion, a sort of sanctuary. And so it is for me, a way to pass time when it weighs heavy.

Beth is an outsider artist, who works in many mediums. Visit her website to see more of her work.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on until 15 January 2017.