Out of Sight Out of Mind: exhibition gives a voice to those with mental health issues

Ten years ago, a group of artists and mental health activists launched a groundbreaking new exhibition in Edinburgh, showcasing and celebrating the work of people experiencing mental health issues. The show’s title was a response to the idea that mental health issues were often kept “out of sight, out of mind”. Out of Sight Out of Mind is now the biggest exhibition of its kind in Scotland, with work from 200 artists. Here, ten people who have contributed to the show over its first decade describe why it is so important to them.
Under My Skin by Stephanie Wilson at the 2018 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition PIC: Chris ScottUnder My Skin by Stephanie Wilson at the 2018 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition PIC: Chris Scott
Under My Skin by Stephanie Wilson at the 2018 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition PIC: Chris Scott

Lauren Stonebanks: “We’re a community, a found family.”

I have been involved in organising Out of Sight Out of Mind since its start in 2013. I was asked to join the planning group after submitting work to its precursor in 2012. I love being involved as it has given me a way to express myself through art which people seem to understand. This surprised me as I'm used to not being understood at all. There's also a tangible sense of achievement that's harder for my mental illness to deny. More importantly, it's a reason to keep going when life is difficult. The exhibition must go on! It has grown so much over the last ten years. We have more exhibitors, more visitors and we now have a website!

Mental health continues to be stigmatised, and while there is improvement around some diagnoses, the stigma surrounding others remains. The media coverage of a recent trial highlighted that. My favourite parts of organising Out of Sight Out of Mind are installing the exhibition and the launch event. We have a lot of fun during install week. It's like doing a giant jigsaw puzzle with friends. I've gained confidence and many friendships through being involved. We're a community, a found family, who are very supportive of each other. I hope to continue being involved for many years to come.

Installation view of the 2020 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition, featuring work by Edina Donald (left), MECOPP (middle), Amy Tong (right) and KMM Saunder (middle back) PIC: Ian DoddsInstallation view of the 2020 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition, featuring work by Edina Donald (left), MECOPP (middle), Amy Tong (right) and KMM Saunder (middle back) PIC: Ian Dodds
Installation view of the 2020 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition, featuring work by Edina Donald (left), MECOPP (middle), Amy Tong (right) and KMM Saunder (middle back) PIC: Ian Dodds
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Rebecca Turner: “It allows people like me to reclaim our voices.”

I have only been involved for the last three months. I came to a ‘meet the film maker’ meeting and could tell immediately what a powerful and important exhibition this clearly is, so I joined the planning group and am exhibiting too. I’ve never exhibited artwork before or been involved in an event like this, so it’s really exciting. Getting involved in Out of Sight, Out of Mind has been really important for me because I was keen to find survivor led mental health projects here – that’s something I’ve been passionate about for years. I can’t wait to get stuck into the hands-on exhibition work – to meet more people, see the artworks and have interesting conversations. For me personally, exhibiting at OOSOOM is about activism. The piece I’m showing and my explanation of it describe a time in my life when my reality was very different from what people generally experience. During this period, I was made to have ‘treatment’ for my ‘symptoms’ – what was really going on for me was effectively dismissed. In my artwork I’ve tried to portray what the experience was actually like for me and the meaning it held. The fact that I’m able to express that so publicly now is really empowering. I think something strange has happened by making mental health more ‘mainstream’ – there’s a narrow focus on a very medicalised and individualised view of mental health which has really dominated public opinion. People get silenced if they have an alternative view. It’s why Out of Sight Out of Mind is so valuable in my opinion as it allows people such as myself to express ourselves and reclaim our voices. I think it’s needed now as much as ever.

Garry Stevens “It’s helped a lot with my mental health.”

I have exhibited work at Out of Sight Out of Mind each year for the past six years. Before I didn't have much confidence in my art but this exhibition has given me confidence and a platform. My style is to draw how I feel and express myself creatively using a mixture of media. It’s great to see the exhibition grow through the years and to see a variety of art as well as meet so many nice people along the way. Exhibiting my work here has helped a lot with my mental health. That's one of my memorable moments knowing people are seeing my art. If you said to me ten years ago that I would be exhibiting my own personal art to the public at an exhibition I would probably laugh and said no chance.

Work by the  LGBT Health & Wellbeing Group at the 2013 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition PIC: Margaret DrysdaleWork by the  LGBT Health & Wellbeing Group at the 2013 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition PIC: Margaret Drysdale
Work by the LGBT Health & Wellbeing Group at the 2013 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition PIC: Margaret Drysdale

Luke ‘Luca’ Cockayne: “I needed someone to see the confusion and fear I was feeling.”

I submitted a painting for the show in 2018, returning to show a piece in 2021. This year I’m exhibiting again, but I’ve also joined the planning group to help organise the exhibition. The painting I exhibited in 2018, Oma’s Cardigan, was one I had painted in a psychiatric hospital the year before. At the time I painted it I was sure that my career was over, as well as deeply afraid I was going to spend the rest of my life in institutional care. The painting is in Teeline shorthand, but a particularly garbled/abstracted version of it, and the text itself reflects how unhinged my mind was… it’s very much a visual proof of how ill I was at the time. It also isn’t immediately accessible to the viewer, which meant that the nurses and other patients didn’t really know how to respond to it and I felt incredibly unsure of its worth. Being able to display it at Out of Sight Out of Mind allowed me to see its artistic value and helped me in working towards going back to art college to do a masters in painting. It was the springboard to a whole new body of work there and it was the confidence and reassurance I got from Out of Sight Out of Mind that made that possible.Returning in 2021 and preparing for this year feel like victory laps, while I’m thrilled to take part and am sure it will be a valuable experience in terms of meeting other artists, learning more about exhibition preparation etc it’s really the 2018 show that sums up, for me, what Out of Sight Out of Mind is about – I needed someone to take that painting seriously, to really look at it and see the confusion and pain and fear that I was feeling and I felt Out of Sight Out of Mind really held it and held me. I’ll forever be grateful for that.

I think there’s more discussion of mental health now but I think the discrimination and stigma is actually stronger. Personality disorders are jokingly referenced around me a lot, like “oh that woman was so narcissistic”, or “omg, big BPD energy”, and I see a lot of self-diagnosis and an eagerness to diagnose or label others in a way that makes it easier to dismiss them.I’ve seen an increasing lack of tolerance for behaviours caused by mental ill-health as well as an increased frustration with those of us who struggle. This is especially true in the workplace where there’s a lot of talk, and legislation, about accommodating neurodiversity and disabilities but very little actual understanding of what that means in practice. I hope this is part of the process of de-stigmatising mental ill-health though. I think Out of Sight Out of Mind is part of a growing area of disability arts or disabled-led arts that’s really exciting and desperately needed. It’s not any single thing Out of Sight Out of Mind is doing, necessarily, but the sum total of everything they’re getting right – from the friendliness and competence of the organisers, to the clear structure, to the thoughtful curation… it just works and does a great job of displaying the work of artists who have been told they aren’t ‘real’ artists. It’s a great example of ‘outsider’ art being brought ‘inside’.

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Fadzai Mwakutuya: “It has reached a diverse audience whilst sensitively tackling mental health stigma.”

Work by Fiona Tong at the 2017 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition PIC: Chris ScottWork by Fiona Tong at the 2017 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition PIC: Chris Scott
Work by Fiona Tong at the 2017 Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition PIC: Chris Scott

I have been involved with the exhibition since its inception since 2013; I got involved with the group before Out of Sight Out of Mind even began! I was invited to participate in the exhibition by CAPS Advocacy when they saw my interest in creating visual imagery and passion in the arts. More discussion around mental health and treatment conversations are evident now and we can visibly see more people on social media platforms speak of their mental health in their art forms, music , sport etc.. and in the communities at large. Post pandemic people seem to be speaking of their mental health issues more openly, from different age groups and communities. The exhibition has evolved into a more inclusive space, including the voices of people of varied protected characteristics. Out of Sight Out of Mind has amplified the voices of people experiencing mental health issues and its presence with the online exhibition has reached a diverse audience in the communities whilst sensitively tackling mental health stigma, evident in the growth of number of participants in the 2022 exhibition.

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Tim Kirman: “My creative practice has been an important part of my recovery.”

I first got involved in Out of Sight Out of Mind in 2019. Having lived experienced of mental health issues I was keen to participate as my creative practice has been an important part of both my recovery and management of my mental health and personal well-being. Whereas I had previously found it difficult to talk about my experiences my art has become a means by which I can openly discuss the issues and topics more openly. I think that over the past ten years there have been great steps in how we talk more openly about our mental health and attempt to tackle the stigma around it. However, I think that there is still a long way to go and recent events, such as the pandemic, highlight just how far we have still to go. The success of Out of Sight Out of Mind really demonstrates just how much we have brought the discussion into the public arena and is especially apparent in the growing number of submissions year on year.

Azra Khan: “Having this project in my life is fortifying and liberating.”

I first became involved with Out of Sight Out of Mind two years ago after moving to Edinburgh and scrolling through volunteering opportunities from CAPS Independent Advocacy. The idea of being part of a collaborative art exhibition which centred around mental health was an exciting prospect. I asked to be put in touch with the group and soon enough I was in my first planning meeting. I was struck by the warm and welcoming feeling of the team and the shared passion and drive for cultivating the exhibition. Despite being new and not particularly knowledgeable about how to plan, curate or run an exhibition, I felt like I could actively contribute and be listened to. As time went on, I had the confidence to submit my own work for the exhibition and assist with PR and invigilation. My burgeoning friendship and familiarity with Out of Sight Out of Mind has been one of the main highlights of the last few years. Long may it last. Out of Sight Out of Mind found me as I was gradually coming out of a very dark and painful time in my life. My own mental illness could be incredibly debilitating, and I still thought of it as something that should be stifled and hidden away. What an idea to channel some of what I felt and pour it into artworks that morphed the shadows of my mind into tangible projects which brought purpose and catharsis to my days. Equally, how wonderful to share these pieces in an environment of solidarity and empowerment. I said during my first year that I felt Out Of Sight Out Of Mind felt like placing fragments of humanity together, shaping a whole, and I think that’s still exactly why it’s so impactful and important to me. To speak with these powerful voices and to share in such a community has allowed me to flourish alongside the exhibition. I don’t pretend that my life or mental health now is constantly all roses, but having this project firmly reside in my life, mind and heart is both fortifying and liberating, and for that I will always be grateful.

There is, on the whole, less stigma around mental health now but we still have a long way to go. People still wrestle with fear of judgement and discrimination around their own experiences of mental illness. I think that is why it is so vital to have projects such as Out Of Sight Out Of Mind which place people with lived experience of mental illness at the forefront and let their voices shape the end result. Nothing is filtered, watered down or made suitable for public consumption. Such communities show that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and people are not alone with their struggles. Together we are stronger. The road to lessening stigma is complex and fraught, but I like to think that we’re gradually heading in the right direction. I think that this exhibition has not only developed and cultivated a community of solidarity and self-expression, but it has also led the way for new discussions on mental health and illness.

Pam van de Brug: “This exhibition has helped me to be more open.”

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I saw the first Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition in 2013 and was completely blown away by it. I learned that the exhibitors were all people with experience of mental health issues, and they had organised it themselves to speak about what was important to them. Their voices were loud and clear; some of the artworks were raw, funny, political. It sounds like a cliché, but this group of artists were not asking for permission or validation from anyone. I loved it. I soon got involved in the planning group and later I got funding as an artist to make a public artwork about mental health with some members of the group, and this was shown in the 2015 exhibition. Out of Sight Out of Mind now hosted by CAPS Independent Advocacy and since 2016 I have worked for the exhibition in the role of Arts as Advocacy Manager. I think that being hosted with a remit of independent advocacy and run by a planning group of people with their own lived experience of mental health issues is what enables it to be the beautiful, diverse, generous thing that it is. This exhibition and its community have helped me to be more open, and I’m reminded throughout each year of planning and the exhibition what making and being involved in art can do for us, if we have the opportunity.

Stephanie Wilson: “You can see real connection, real support.”

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I got involved in the exhibition after I visited to see a friend’s work on display in 2018. I got in touch with CAPS and went along to a few of the planning group meetings. As an exhibitor, taking part in the exhibition has given me the space to communicate something I couldn’t say with words. And a place to feel something familiar and in common with a community of people I had never met before. I now work as the Exhibition Assistant each year and I have found that this has given me a different relationship to the artwork and the participants. One of my favourite aspects of it is seeing artworks in person for the first time after getting to know them through the submission forms. There is something magical about ‘artwork hand-in day’ when submission forms and words, become people and artworks. You can stand there and see real connection, real support, and real community. The exhibition being ten years old feels important. It feels like it’s flown by. It’s a way to mark the years and passing of time. It’s interesting to see people’s artworks change develop as do their stories and journeys.

Mehreen Bengali: “It’s an inclusive and empowering platform for those with lived experiences.”

As a first-year planning group member, I was particularly excited about marking the exhibition’s tenth year. I’ve been in awe at how Out of Sight Out of Mind works so well as a collective advocacy project utilising the power of art to bring together a range of voices. This year, as a way to mark the occasion, we have curated an exhibition within an exhibition that tells the story of Out of Sight Out of Mind in relation to the larger mental health narrative and collective advocacy. It presents material from the Lothian Health Service Archive as well as the Out of Sight Out of Mind archive to tell a story of its evolution over the past ten years but also offer an insight into the changes to mental health advocacy over many years. I firmly believe that over ten years, Out of Sight Out of Mind’s greatest achievement is the inclusive and empowering platform it offers to those with lived experiences to continue expressing and advocating for themselves and their communities.

Out of Sight Out of Mind’s tenth anniversary exhibition is at Summerhall, Edinburgh, from 12 to 30 October, Wednesdays to Sundays, 12-6pm, with a launch event on Tuesday 11 October. www.outofsightoutofmind.scot The exhibition is supported by the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, CAPS Independent Advocacy, funder Edinburgh Health and Social Care Partnership and Thrive Edinburgh