Richard Wentworth and Reid Baboolal in conversation: “it’s about relationships and it’s about trust”

The arrival of September means fresh starts for many people, a change of pace, focus or routine after the long hot days of summer. For Hospital Rooms, this September marks a significant new beginning as we moved into our very first office space and established a proper headquarters for the charity. We are very proud of our new home and excited about the opportunity the space provides for holding events, talks and workshops. As we develop new projects, our headquarters will provide a space where art and mental health care begin to come together, where knowledge, creativity and experience is exchanged, providing the opportunity for the meaningful collaboration between artists, NHS staff and service users which is so fundamental to our charity.

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So what better way to celebrate Hospital Rooms’ brand new headquarters than with a special event hosting a discussion between artist Richard Wentworth and ward manager Reid Baboolal. Richard Wentworth CBE has played a leading role in New British Sculpture since the 1970s, creating daring work which has challenged traditional definitions of sculpture and been exhibited in some of the best galleries and cultural institutions worldwide. A passionate educator, he has also taught many leading British artists, including Damian Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Rachael Whiteread. Reid Balboolal is the ward manager at Garnet Ward for older people with dementia and other mental health challenges; it was our project at Garnet Ward that brought Richard and Reid together and the two quickly formed a great friendship.

Reid’s dedication to his patients and determination to make Garnet Ward the very best it could be was an inspiration to all of us. Enthusiastic and committed from the outset, he played a central role in helping us to realise our project, supporting us not only with the practicalities of working onsite but also contributing his own imaginative ideas and creative flair as we planned and developed the transformation of Garnet Ward.

“Reid thought like an artist, was open to all ideas and wanted the rooms to have ‘heart and soul’” — Tim A Shaw, Hospital Rooms co-founder

Richard Wentworth made several lengthy visits to Garnet Ward, to identify, as he said, “ways to be helpful”. Eventually he created seven unique works exploring the theme of recognition, using images cut from newspapers.

“Recognition' seems to me quite the most amazing aspect of being human - the way we re-cognise things and people. I've been working on something which is 'at one remove' - the way we claim to recognise people in newspapers. Low-quality print, assorted scales, colour and black and white, yet we think we can name somebody! It occurred to me that the old tradition of pinning up heroes might be a way to approach my commission at the Garnet Ward. For the greater part we distinguish people from animals and objects, so I thought that putting up images of people we might recognise mixed up with ones we might not, could ask us all some important questions.”

— Richard Wentworth

 Hospital Rooms co-founder Niamh White welcomes the guests and introduces the event before handing over to co-founder Tim A Shaw, ward manager Reid Baboolal and artist Richard Wentworth.

Hospital Rooms co-founder Niamh White welcomes the guests and introduces the event before handing over to co-founder Tim A Shaw, ward manager Reid Baboolal and artist Richard Wentworth.

On Friday evening guests arrived at Hospital Rooms’ new office, filling the space with conversations about art, healthcare and collaboration, about projects past, present and future. The opportunity to be present at this unique and intimate event created a buzz of interest and enthusiasm in the room.

Following an introduction from Hospital Rooms co-founder Niamh White and an initial prompt from fellow co-founder Tim A Shaw, the discussion between Reid and Richard was soon in full flow.

Reid and Richard each gave us their thoughts and impressions of Garnet Ward going into the project with Hospital Rooms. For Reid it is the place he has dedicated most of his career to managing, seeing it through a number of transitions and increasing demands for the 14 beds. His describes his work as “challenging and rewarding” but it is work he loves, a point he reiterates during the hour-long conversation:

“As a ward manager I see myself as very lucky. I have a beautiful ward and work with wonderful staff and I love what I do. We at the ground level have our own micro-climate - we make the best of what we have.”

 Reid Baboolal, Garnet Ward ward manager, in conversation with artist Richard Wentworth at Hospital Rooms new headquarters.

Reid Baboolal, Garnet Ward ward manager, in conversation with artist Richard Wentworth at Hospital Rooms new headquarters.

Reid explained to the audience the nature of Garnet Ward and the complex patients it cares for - older people with various mental health issues including a high proportion of individuals with a diagnosis of dementia as well as physical challenges associated with old age. On learning that Hospital Rooms would be working with Garnet Ward Reid said, “I just felt rather lucky that I got this call and told this project was coming. I just went, ‘Yay!’ It was such an easy gift, such an easy thing to do.”

Reid’s “tender but professional” description of Garnet Ward, as Richard referred to it, was the point of view of one who knows the space intimately, whose familiarity, ease and genuine love for the ward has developed from years spent caring for staff and patients. It is a point of view informed by the human connections Reid associates with the ward, rather than the institutional nature of the physical environment.

It was the latter, however, that Richard wanted to convey for the audience, candidly sharing his increasing trepidation as he travelled to Garnet Ward for the first time. A natural and captivating storyteller, Richard painted a vivid picture for the audience of his first visit to Garnet Ward: his long walk up the Holloway Road and his troubling associations with the area, feeling the weight of history both personal and political. It may have surprised the audience to hear Richard admit the nerves he felt as he got closer to entering the ward; passing through one locked door after another he became ever more aware of the institutional nature of the space he was entering, uneasy in the unfamiliar hospital environment. “But then I heard Reid’s voice”, and in his natural instinctive way Reid immediately made Richard feel more at ease - “I was humbled and thrilled”. Fear of the impersonal “institution” was replaced by the pleasure of connecting deeply with another person, forming a relationship defined by affection, trust and mutual curiosity. The two were soon exchanging stories and experiences and discovering their shared passions and outlook on life.

Among the many qualities and interests that Richard and Reid have in common is their natural warmth and genuine interest in finding connection with others, as Richard said, “The undertone of this is something to do with recognising difference and then going, ‘what fun!’. There’s a great pleasure in that”.

Ahead of his first meeting with Richard, Reid admitted he spent some time googling the artist: “I like to know the person I’m dealing with. I like to find out about them”. This urge to find out is more than just curiosity, however, it speaks to Reid’s empathic approach to working with people: “It’s about trying to reach and trying to get a kinship with the other”

For Richard, strong relationships built on trust and openness give a sense of security that can enable one to be creatively daring and step into unfamiliar territory:

“Confide and confidence are the same thing. If you confide in someone you gain confidence and if you gain confidence you take risks.”

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“Maybe I should say how frightened I was. But it’s important to talk about the usefulness of that fear: You don’t want to patronise, or condescend an enormous range of people, you want to do your best …You’re asking yourself, ‘What can I do that will be a good speculative gift?’ But I never felt that I was the supplier, or that Reid was the client - in these relationships language is so important.” Hospital Rooms co-founder Tim A Shaw agrees, “There’s no bestowing of anything”

That sense of equality, mutual respect and creative partnership Richard highlights is fundamentally important to the ethos and working practice of Hospital Rooms. For Reid the relationships he, his staff and his patients forged with the artists who participated in the Garnet Ward project allayed his initial nerves about how they might transform spaces he naturally felt protective of: “I felt really connected, with all the artists. You guys were really inclusive, you got involved with the patients, showing them your work, including people in discussion”. From TIm’s point of view, it was Reid who helped facilitate that connection with patients “The project was so successful because your advice to us was ‘Don’t second guess people’”. Reid’s deep understanding of his patients’ experience of the ward and his compassion for the challenges they encounter, not to mention his attention to detail, was invaluable to the Hospital Rooms project and all who were a part of it. None of the artists opted to take on the shower room at Garnet but Reid was determined to improve this space. He explained that the shower room is where the older people are at their most vulnerable. A lot can happen in there and the loss of dignity patients may experience makes it a particularly challenging space for them to be in. This also presents a challenge for staff caring for people whilst using this room. “We don’t think about the functionality of the bathroom if we are able but we do if we are disabled”. Reid was emphatic that the dreary and damp space was in desperate need of attention, “I said, if no one will do it I will get up on a ladder and do it myself”. Even though it was outside original project plan, Tim and Niamh took Reid’s guidance and made sure that the shower room was brightened up with fresh coats of paint and made a more pleasant space for patients and staff to be in.

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As the discussion continued we discovered that Richard and Reid share a passion for collecting. Over the last twenty years Reid’s home has steadily become a treasure trove, filling with all kinds of objects brought back from trips abroad:  “trinkets and ethnographic objects like masks, wooden carvings, cultural objects, religious objects, calligraphic writings. We have about 513 Virgin Mary’s and 200 buddhas. There are about 200 African masks on display on one of our walls. We are not concerned whether it is 19th century or 18th century or even a modern replica - we just buy it because we like it. I do love lovely spaces!” For Reid, part of the enjoyment of collecting is organising his objects, something he also identifies as central to his professional responsibilities:  “My life is about trying to create order and I like things very ordered. As a manager I think that is an important part of what I have to do.” 

The work Richard Wentworth has created for Garnet Ward started with a collection - of all the newspapers published on one day. Bringing this pile of newspapers to the ward, Richard began sifting through them and cutting out images, the kinds of images we encounter every day, pictures of people and places which are recognisable along with pictures we may have more difficulty placing when seen out of context. With this material Richard began arranging images into small collections, groupings which may or may not immediately appear to “make sense”, thus prompting the viewer to find their own connections and associations and draw their own conclusions - a more personal and individual experience of “recognition”.

 “We all arrange the world - its culture, it’s not about being ‘artistic’. Different cultures arrange things differently. Hospitals have their own culture, they are very codified spaces.  We don’t have to be traversed in this to recognise it, we all dismantle the world to make sense of it”.  — Richard Wentworth.

 One of seven unique new artworks by Richard Wentworth created for Garnet Ward

One of seven unique new artworks by Richard Wentworth created for Garnet Ward

 View of the corridor at Garnet Ward, with two of the works Richard created, exploring the concept of recognition

View of the corridor at Garnet Ward, with two of the works Richard created, exploring the concept of recognition

Nearing the end of the discussion, Richard Wentworth again emphasised the importance of the trust, respect, courtesy and support in the collaborative partnerships which made the Garnet Ward project possible and which seem to define the way Hospital Rooms operates: “Tim and Niamh are very immediate people. You’re not cunning or sneaky. There’s a fluency in what you do. You don’t do righteousness. You don’t do worthiness. You don’t do earnestness.”

In a final gesture of friendship, Richard produced from his pocket a small red envelope and handed it to Reid. Containing a small souvenir artefact from Bulgaria, Richard bought the gift on a trip to the country earlier in the year - “Even in Bulgaria you’re still thinking about Reid!” said Tim, whist Reid stared at the new addition to his collection, noticeably moved in speechless gratitude.

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 Richard Wentworth beginning work at Garnent Ward

Richard Wentworth beginning work at Garnent Ward

 Another piece by Richard Wentworth on the corridor wall at Garnet Ward.

Another piece by Richard Wentworth on the corridor wall at Garnet Ward.

Mounted to the walls of the corridor in Garnet Ward, Richard has positioned his work at different levels, some displayed unconventionally low down. By doing so we are reminded of the importance of changing our habitual point of view. Reid tells the audience there is currently an elderly patient at Garnet Ward who is unable to keep her head and upper body lifted and stand fully upright, so her gaze is always directed downwards. So for patients at Garnet Richard’s decision to mount his images below a typical eye level actually increases visibility of the work. The corridor can be seen from other common areas in the ward, so it is possible to catch glimpses of the images from different locations and perspectives. TIm recalls a moment when a female patient seated in the lounge noticed a picture of someone wearing a red jumper in one of Richard’s panels. This, she said, reminded her of the Arsenal football strip and she went to her bedroom to fetch an Arsenal teddy bear. A conversation about football then ensued - an interaction, a moment of connecting with others and re-connecting with the self, and a personal “recognition”, that was entirely prompted by a fragment of Richard’s artwork.

 Close-up view of one of the seven works created by Richard Wentworth for Garnet Ward.

Close-up view of one of the seven works created by Richard Wentworth for Garnet Ward.

Our projects would not be possible without the generosity and support of Hospital Rooms’ friends and donors. With your help we can transform more NHS mental health care environments across the UK and give more people the opportunity to be touched and inspired by the unique and radical work that we do.

Your donations really do make a difference.