Michelle Baharier and her artist friends started CoolTan Arts in 1991 as an unpretentious safe space where people could overcome mental distress through art-making. Twenty-four years later, the project continues with more than 3,000 participants. In the early days, this DIY community squatted in the abandoned CoolTan sun lotion factory in Brixton, South London — hence the name. The collective evolved through the decades and remains an innovative example of how mental health outreach doesn’t have to come through formal channels. Makeshift recently caught up with Michelle to talk CoolTan.
Makeshift: What’s so unique about CoolTan’s approach to mental wellness?
MB: Firstly, CoolTan is run by and for people with mental health disorders, so it’s a user-led project. Secondly, it’s run by artists, not medical professionals.The people who come here have disabilities, but disability isn’t the theme of the art. Art-making here follows an ‘art for art’s sake’ philosophy. Every participant is respected as an artist in their own right. CoolTan provides what’s needed to make art, including space and supplies, but it doesn’t aim to define what’s going to heal you; it gives you the instruments to do it yourself.
If you come here, you discover that art-making allows you to take control. Our society tends to be extremely passive, especially if you’ve got a mental health condition. Decisions are taken by others based on what they believe is best for you, so you risk being treated like an object.
How can art be mentally therapeutic?
Art enables you to go into a very private process, from which you’re able to make choices without any pressure. Art-making is very similar to practicing mindfulness — a therapeutic practice to focus on the present — but not everyone can do mindfulness.
Art guides you through a similar process while keeping you anchored. You become so involved in making, that all your concentration allows you to relax and take your mind away from what’s painful. Most people who come here and paint, for example, don’t paint what’s painful in their lives; they create a fantasy, something positive that they’d like to see happen.
Tell me about the monthly ‘Largactyl Shuffles’ that CoolTan organizes.
Largactyl is an antipsychotic drug that can interfere with people’s ability to walk, causing them to shuffle. To bust the stigma of mental illness, we organize symbolic ‘Largactyl Shuffles’, which are guided thematic walks in and around southeast London.
Imagine a space where people with mental distress get to interact with the wider public, going beyond what’s typically expected of them and building community through art, humor, exercise and history — that’s a Largactyl Shuffle. It’s a ‘psychogeography’ walk to explore the world we live in. Feeling like an active, creative part of the local community is super critical to someone’s well-being. Future shuffles will include a Pagan walk, an LGBT History walk, and a Green Cuisine walk.
CoolTan’s cookbook explores the connection between food and mental well-being. Why do this project?
Food for Mood was created by CoolTan participants who wanted to share stories about what they like to eat and why it’s important to them. Some people skip meals because they have eating disorders; some eat by themselves and feel quite alone. Others don’t have kitchens big enough to cook in or don’t own the necessary equipment. There was a real desire to share this need.
What does CoolTan add that is missing from mainstream mental health programs?
National health services struggle to acknowledge that someone with mental distress needs to feel valued in a community setting in order to get well. CoolTan provides that through poetry books, magazines, public art exhibitions, postcards, and other collaborative products. This de-stigmatizes people with mental disabilities and allows them to play an active part in society, whereas if they’re only stuck in a medical model, their identity doesn’t evolve. Mental health patients risk becoming isolated clinical objects. When they come here, they can reinvent themselves and feel like they belong. They’re able to discuss their social role with other CoolTan users while creating some-thing. They make art, exhibit it, feel good about themselves, and can share in that with their families and friends, strengthening relations.