Tam Martin Fowles, Founding Director/CEO of Hope in the Heart CIC tells us about Messages from the HeART a new series an exciting, unique exhibition and series of events funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and taking place at Ocean Studios from 5th to 22nd May. 

Hope in the Heart is a Community Interest Company founded in 2013 to provide workshops, courses and events that compassionately explore and celebrate the gifts inherent in adverse experiences and the skills and expertise that can be honed by our challenges. All HITH’s staff and directors have lived experience of mental health and associated issues and, in common with many survivors of trauma and adversity, this drives us to seek to make a positive difference in our communities and wider world. We encourage our participants to also explore the sense of purpose lived experience can bring.

In recent years we have been providing training and consultation, in co-production, compassionate and relational practice, to organisations, including NHS trusts, universities and other services, in the UK and overseas.

Hope in the Heart’s  Messages from the HeART project was conceived during an informal conversation I had with my colleague, Sophie Coxon, in a South London café in Spring 2021, following the long winter lockdown.  

A couple of months earlier, we had attended an online training about Open Dialogue – a radical treatment for people experiencing extreme mental health distress. What I learned about the compassion and respect this offers to individuals with a diagnosis of psychosis took me back to the very different experience I had thirty years ago, when that diagnosis was applied to me. I felt moved to write a long poem, directed to the psychiatrist who treated me then, and those current professionals who may still dismiss the insights and needs of people in their care.  Its creation was cathartic and healing for me, and now I mused to Sophie that it might be similarly beneficial for some of our service-users to be invited to express feelings they may hold towards people in positions of power. Sophie suggested this could be a project, and we wondered about organising a small exhibition of artworks by people with lived experience of many kinds, each containing a message its creator would like to voice and inviting service providers and others in power to receive their messages.

When we suggested this idea we were surprised at the positive responses, from both service users and providers. With vital support from the National Lottery Community Fund and Real Ideas, we began to work towards the (actually not so small) exhibition that is almost ready to open, and its associated events.

We decided to offer exhibitions and events in several areas of the UK to highlight the common issues faced, beginning at Ocean Studios, where the Real Ideas team offered us an amazing space and access to their ongoing support and expertise. Having never done anything like this before, our gratitude for such wrap-around support remains sincere and boundless!

Over the past year a diverse range of people in Plymouth, London and Cornwall have created some profound and moving pieces of art for this first exhibition. In Plymouth, initial workshops at Devonport Guildhall, later moving to the Making Table and Events Space at Ocean Studios, were mostly attended by our regular participants, but over time have attracted many new ones, including small groups from local organisations.

Sophie has been running in-person workshops in London throughout this time (sometimes with me), plus online workshops that have brought together creators from London, Plymouth and elsewhere. Zoe Copeland from Devon Mind, our main partner, has also been facilitating online and in-person workshops to generate art and creative writing, as has Emma Sprawson of Mindful Art Club.

All these events are not only creating content, but connecting the artists (who may never before have considered themselves as such) to celebrate and support each other, raising confidence, transcending barriers and enjoying the validation, liberation, empathy and healing that come from being truly heard.

We have connected with many other organisations, in partnership and collaboration. As well as Real Ideas these include Devon Mind, Belong in Plymouth, Mindful Art Club, the Trauma-Informed Plymouth Network, Sunflower Women’s Centre, the Highbury Trust, Plymouth Access to Housing, Wonder Zoo and many more, in Plymouth and beyond. A network has sprung into being, united in the task of raising awareness of important issues in unique and creative ways, with the intention of influencing vital and positive change. There is a sense of shared purpose that is potent, joyful and filled with hope. It is a privilege to witness the journeys taken by participants, many of whom have started out shyly, unsure of their direction, and found themselves safely held and valued as part of a community of changemakers whose individual voices combine to create a powerful harmony of potential for transformation – personal and collective.

The exhibition will include messages about mental health, trauma, domestic violence, displacement, racism, homelessness and more. There will be expressions of gratitude, pleas for change, and suggestions about what change could look like. The messages will be reinforced in the various events that will accompany the exhibition.

Real Ideas have, rather wonderfully, provided me with a residency and studio space at Ocean Studios during April and May, where the artwork is now being collected. This enables us to work within the space, preparing, meeting, creating – and welcoming visitors who would like to see the work in progress and be part of the adventure.