Book Review: Or Storeys: Art and Poetry in Healthcare (Sue Ridge and John Davies)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
Writers of disability literature are always faced with two non-contradictory approaches to new writing: focusing subject matter that counters biases of the past with a new perspective and demonstrating that living with a disability can impact literary form, leading to new techniques. Is it the narrative itself or the form of the narrative? The pun in the title of Our Storeys: Art and Poetry in Healthcare (Pighog Publishing, 2014) by Sue Ridge and John Davies acknowledges that the authors faced this challenge on at least two levels, first, in the creation of the project described in the book and, second, in the creation of the book that tells its story.
Artist Sue Ridge was invited to carry out a public works art project in the space around the elevator lobbies and waiting rooms of the newly renovated North Middlesex University Hospital in London. She invited poet John Davies, with whom she had collaborated on previous projects, to join her. Davies was to provide the written text to compliment the visual aspects of the project, designed and managed by Ridge herself. With the philosophy that the focus of their work was to be the social engagement of the hospital population, the artists set about to draw work from their surroundings. Davies aka Shedman (who Davies wryly notes is "basically just a guy in a shed") set up a shed in the hospital lobby to allow him to interview and interact with those in the hospital setting.
One of the things that they quickly discovered was that the majority of the patients and visitors were there on a one time basis only whereas the staff had continuous occasions to interact with the environment. In addition, they viewed their work not as therapeutic but as a chance to engage others in art. Therefore, rather than fill the colorful backdrops that she developed with inspirational quotes, Ridge instead developed the concept of a social wallpaper that would connect the community, workers, and internal environment. Archival material relating to the long history of the hospital in that area provided one point of connection, and, Davies, in addition to the material culled from his interviews, drew upon the work of literary figures like Keats, who had been born in the community, and living poets who had a connection with the area. Where he needed to fill in gaps and make connections, Davies wrote a good deal of the poetry himself specifically for the project. In summary, as Ridge and Davies note, the hospital walls served as a palimpsest for the project itself.
The physical space that the project was to cover included the areas around the elevators in four floors (-2 to 2) of NMUH and the waiting rooms. Against the sorbet colors, the words and images that poet Wendy French describes as a chase accompany pedestrians from floor to floor. These include not just words in various typographies, but photographs, whimsical drawings and other images. As Ridge points out, like a poem or work of art, the social wall paper is designed not to be taken in on one viewing but something that can be returned to for fresh insights each time. Each level, however, centers around a certain theme. For example, on Level 0 (the lavender level), the words above the elevator door boldly announce "These are our stories on Our Storeys." Near this Michael Rosen's poem "These are the hands" is accompanied by photographs of the hands of those who work in the hospital each holding a brief quote.
It is no surprise that in telling their own story, Ridge and Davies approach the book itself as an art object. Like the social wallpaper, it is only vaguely narrative, preferring to allow the reader to approach their understanding of the project through making associations among the book's various components. As with the two-dimensional surface of the hospital walls provided for them for the execution of their project, Our Storeys forces the authors to work within the space available to them by the physical nature of a book.
One way the authors try to give readers a sense of what the experience of their project in the NMUH hospital might feel like is to make the first and last pages of the book unfold in a sort of triglyph that display the colors and contents of the bottom two and top two floors of the hospital, respectively. At the beginning of the book, this page sits opposite a table of contents with each section of the book's contents color-coded in a hue corresponding to one of the hospital levels. At the end of the book, the fold out page is adjacent to a photograph showing how the elevators might look if viewed from someone standing on the bottom floor. Not surprisingly between these two pages, each section of the book is cast in one of the four colors with addition of two new colors for the introductory and acknowledgement sections of the book. Bright photographs are posted throughout.
On first viewing, this explosion of colors and images can overpower the semantic content of the book. But it is there, and provides two other possible approaches to the book. The first is to navigate the various written documents amassed to tell the verbal story of the project. The second is simply to go straight to the poetry and read. Ridge and Davies have marshaled short introductory forewords from the entities involved in inaugurating and funding the projects, interviews in which they (Ridge and Davies) were participants, statements from architects Sue Francis, environmental psychologist Veronica French and Hippocrates poetry award winner Wendy French, and afterwords from appropriate personages. To these are added the authors' own introductions. Taken as a whole, these frequently overlapping accounts give readers a collage-like sense of the project. Though easily read, it is ( by design) not easily absorbed — at least not in a first read-through. The differences in perspective on the project provided by the various texts is interesting in itself. While Ridge is more concerned with the interface of public art and the workers who make use of the space, Simpson emphasizes its "inspirational" side for patients, stating:
Art and words that make you think of elsewhere, of vistas — real and imaginary — are of enormous value when illness has reduced your daily horizons to the absolute basics of movement, rest and nourishment.
The bringing together of poetry from such a wide range of writers by Davies is an impressive feat in itself. One thing that most American readers will benefit from in reading the book, even if they have no particular interest in art in healthcare per se, will be an introduction to samples of work by many contemporary British poets whose work they may not know, some of whom like Carol Ann Duffy and Andrew Motion were poet laureates. Davies makes connections among these poems through inclusion of his own work. For example, beside Keats' "To Solitude, " Davies writes in the first stanza of his poem "Keats":
If this one nurtured your thought and poetry
Surprisingly, few poems actually reference the body as a corporeal entity. One that does is Rosen's "Hands." Another is by Sarah Wardle, a writer with the unlikely title of "former poet in residence at the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club." The opening of Wardle's poem "The Injury Room" is a reminder of the the materiality of all of pass through the corridors:
In here the blue and white is clinical,
While many poems, like Davies "Keats" are intentionally breezy, some like the opening stanzas of "The Present" by Michael Donaghy, invite much deeper reflection:
For the present there is just one moon,
The poetry is an interesting mix of work that is calculated to appeal both to the curious individual waiting at the elevator who has never stopped to read a poem before and to those who actively seek out well-written contemporary poetry. To Ridge and Davies' credit they included in the mix some verse efforts some verse such as K. Mowatt's "The Old North Mid" that barely quality as poetry, but speaks to the liflong relationship between the community and the hospital. Unfortunately for those searching for work by writers with disabilities, all of the above appear to have been written by able-bodied poets.
If one criticism can be leveled against the book itself, it is that the pages of the book (or at least the copy this reviewer had) deciduate faster than maple leaves in autumn — not a particularly desirable feature unless the intent is for readers to create their own social wall paper.
As both a record of Ridge and Davies'achievement and as an object d'art itself, Our Storey's desrves a wide look. One of the most laudable features of the Our Storeys project is that it makes no concessions to cuteness. While often playful, it takes art seriously, leaving smiley faces and cuddly kittens in the hospital gift shop. As a result, whatever one's particular artistic preferences, it is hard not to respect what they have accomplished. Ridge and Davies are not architects and did not set out to make structural transformations. What they did achieve, however, may well serve as a model for hospitals who recognize the important role of the arts in residential institutions. This is true not only for workhouse buildings like "the old North Mid" but for über modern contemporary buildings as well. As architect Sue Francis points out in her contribution to the book, while focus on optimizing efficiency and functionality is necessary to modern treatment, it is not in itself sufficient. The environment must also respond to patients, visitors and staff on a human level.
One might ask whether they could have included auditory components for those with limited vision and there seems to be nothing in their description to indicate that Braille components were included for those with no sight. One can only surmise that it was either lack of funds or the orientation to workers rather than patients /visitors that was the cause of this oversight but given the nature of the institution its seems a rather myopic one. On the other hand, most readers need only walk into their nearest hospital or nursing home to realize, that, when it come to incorporating art into health care facilities and making it part of the social fabric, Ridge and Davies are way ahead of the game.