Messages from the Heart


Hel and Jill each reflect on the Messages from the Heart exhibition they both visited in Brixton in April 2023.


Hope in the HeART 
Tam and Sophie

Hope in the Heart (HiTH) was founded by Tam Martin-Fowles in 2012, with the aim of inspiring change through compassionate connection.  This recent project – Messages from the Heart  – was conceived during a conversation between Tam and Sophie Coxon in a South London café in Spring 2021, following the long winter lockdown.


Through a series of workshops and exhibitions (which have taken place both in both Plymouth and London) service users and survivors have been given the opportunity to express what they need to say to service providers, leaders and society through art, poetry and other creative media.


One mental health professional was so moved by a visit to one of the Plymouth exhibitions that they created this response:



The exhibition that Hel and Jill attended was the first to be mounted from HiTH’s new location, in Brixton. It was also the first that has included zines as a major part of the display.  Since Tam discovered the Madzines project, she’s been prolifically making her own zines and incorporating zine-making into the work of the HiTH project. She’s blogged about that for us here and we’re including videos of some her zines in our Being with Zines collection over on our You Tube Channel.


Messages from the Heart


The Brixton  Messages from the Heart exhibition drew on work created between Spring 2021 and November 2022.  The poster showcased an image by Sophie Coxon – ‘living with a broken brain then breathing’ – which, through striking use of luminescent colour and emotive and struck-out words, raises questions about how our bodies and our minds connect.  The exhibition was in the heart of Brixton, on the tenth floor of International House, which has been described as a ‘meanwhile space’; providing room for diversity, inclusiveness and innovation and supporting those who are all too often priced-out of cities.


“Meanwhile is a term describing a space (like an empty shop unit), a building (like an empty department store) or a place (like an empty site awaiting redevelopment), and the term describes how the space might be used temporarily while it is empty, or awaiting a long-term use perhaps yet to be decided. “


Up until early 2018 International House had been occupied by around 600 Council staff from Lambeth Council’s Children and Young People’s Services.  It has now been taken over by 3-space; the first organisation to operate a buy-one-give-one approach to office space, with five commercial floors and five ‘gift floors’.  An ecosystem of imaginative projects has started to emerge there, including the Messages from the Heart workshops and exhibition, hosted in the Carers Common Room – a volunteer run space for domiciliary and home care workers.


Encountering the artworks: Jill’s account


Fresh from the bustle of Brixton market, I arrived at the exhibition in the quiet of mid-afternoon.  Tam, whom I’d yet to meet in person, welcomed me with a hug.  As we ascended in the lift, I sensed the ghosts of the council staff who would once have rushed around that building – clutching case files, no doubt, and short of time.  It seemed somehow fitting that all of that had been replaced by the oasis of calm and connectedness that greeted us on stepping from the lift. The views across the city were expansive and astonishing – a fitting back-drop for this farsighted enterprise.


The exhibition was ranged around the edges of the room, with sofas in the centre. It took time to drink it in. The zines were pegged on a line that ran under a couple of the windows.  Above them were thought clouds on post-it notes – suspended in the sky and floating in the foreground of the tower blocks.


I wondered if the writer of one thought cloud – with its plea to ‘open your doors’ – had International House itself in mind, in its past incarnation.


I spent the next couple of hours absorbed in zines (including several made by Tam herself) –  some which had been made during the workshops, and others which had been loaned to the exhibition by Queer Circle.


I was struck by one zine – in which a former mental health nurse reflects courageously on their past use of restraint.  It reminded me of a recent article I had read in Asylum magazine, in which another nurse – Steven McKenna – also reflects on aggression on inpatient wards.


Shelves in the far corner of the room held other treasures, including a display of tiny origami boxes, made during therapy sessions, which made me itch not just to touch but to make boxes of my own.  This little box display prompted thoughts about the ways in which a zine, like a box, can act both as a container for emotion and an invitation to engage, with care, with the experience of another person.


There were several other sculptures on the shelves including one deeply troubling installation – Patient and Psychiatrist – by Kali.  The ears that are blocked by headphones, the mouth that is stopped up by gaffer tape; the disembodied head full of words, the disembodied head full of pils.  All of these conveyed, in a visceral sense, how we get separated from each other and ourselves, and the disconnects wtihin the system.



The walls were covered with paintings, including Ami Mai McKenna’s self-portrait, capturing ‘a moment of disassociation when I tried to take a photo and left the planet before the timer went off. Blank on the outside, infinite on the inside’.  Those questions of what we contain inside and what we show and reflect on the outside were picked up in her ‘masked ball’ installation.



We have come across several zines recently that aim to convey experiences of dissociation.



There were a range of photographs in the exhibition including Nigel Maynard’s, which he described as a ‘reflection of the neurologically untypical mind trying to grasp an unfamiliar reality and failing’. Tam had made a zine of his exhibition text, and I made a note to share that with Anna Stenning – organiser of the Neurodiversity at Oxford event that we were due to attend the following week.


I spent a peaceful half hour at the zine making table, responding to the exhibition by making my own zine (see below), while Han Park’s wonderful ‘wounded birds’ circled in the air above me.



For many further images from the exhibition, with accompanying text, see here.


I was lucky enough to attend the exhibition on the Saturday, so was able to attend the evening performance of ‘music, spoken word, rap, poetry, and more’. As the preparations for that unfolded, I was struck by the care being taken to ensure that people new to performing felt OK.   I nipped out to grab something to eat, enjoying the hum of evening Brixton.


Then, while we were waiting for the performance to begin, I turned in my seat to chat to the woman in the row behind.  She had also come alone.  As we chatted, I showed her how to fold a mini-zine.  She looked entranced, took it from my hands and folded and unfolded it.  ‘I‘ll just pop this in my bag’, she smiled, ‘and when I’m feeling stressed I can take it out and I can do this with it’ (she moved the sides in an out, like a tiny pair of bellows).  ‘It is like breathing’.


The performances felt powerful, raw, uplifting, sad and utterly engrossing.  At the end, I shared a few quiet moments with the woman I had met earlier. We were both moved by all that we had seen and heard.  She had forgotten her glasses and I carefully wrote her words out on a feedback postcard and dropped it in the box.


I was staying far away, so after some chats with others, needed to get going.  Outside the lights were coming on – in my head too.   As the tube rattled north of the river, I thought back onthe day.  It had been interesting to spend time with zines, not in a zine fair or archive, but in the context of a larger exhibition.


The zines – by contrast with the finished artworks and performance pieces – struck me as transitional. As such I engaged with them somewhat differently.  They were, perhaps, little meanwhile spaces in that larger meanwhile space.


Zines with messages from the HeART: Hel’s reflections 


I met Tam earlier in the year at a Safely Held Spaces event where she introduced me to Hope in the HeART and I introduced her to the Madzines project.  It soon become evident that Hope in the Heart’s mission to use art and creativity as a route to restorative justice for mental health system survivors chimed with some ideas we’ve been developing. For example, I’ve been starting to think about the idea of zines as ‘restorative objects’.  As someone with a background in restorative justice, as well as art, and a mental health system survivor herself, Tam immediately took to the form.  She quickly started to realise their potential as restorative objects in her own work.


So, I was delighted to be invited to their latest exhibition to see some of the Madzines that Tam and HITH participants were creating.  I wasn’t disappointed.  As I’d hoped, they were a perfect medium to create ‘messages from the Heart’ and nestled beautifully amongst the other artwork and creative outputs from the project that Jill encountered.


The exhibition also made the realise that zines were only one way to do this. It opened my mind to the restorative power of other forms of art too.  As just one example (amongst many), I loved the multitude of luggage tags that dangled down from the ceiling upon entry to the exhibition. On the one side people had written things that people, often mental health professionals, had said about them. On the other side, they wrote their response, which often included what they felt was really going on for them.


So simple, yet so effective. It remined me of tip No.1 from the ‘zine tips’ mini zine by Rachael House – ‘there’s no such thing as a bad drawing, your drawing simply has to be strong enough to hold the idea’.


The Messages from the HeART exhibition did more than hold an idea, it held together a burgeoning a community, in the hope of collective healing.


I attended on the last day of the event and whilst this meant I missed the evening performance, I had the pleasure of spending time with Tam and Sophie as they started to reflect on the exhibition. I was delighted to find Jill’s zine she’d made in response the exhibition, nestled amongst the other zines.  As I pondered how to respond myself, I read through the entries in the visitor’s book and saw others were as moved as us.


I shared Tam and Sophie’s disappointment that not more mental health professionals visited the exhibition, despite their valiant efforts.  Those who did visit were likely already attuned to the concerns and issues raised.  This speaks to the problem of restorative justice in general: will it only ever involve those who are willing and able to change? Are we just ‘preaching to the converted’?  Maybe, but we all have to start somewhere, don’t we?  And for a small project that only began two years ago, I believe Hope in the HeART has already made an significant contribution to the field.


If changing minds begins with changing hearts, then Hope in the HeART is certainly playing its part.  This exhibition really helped me see how projects like this can begin to realise the enormous restorative power of zines, and other creative media.  Is this way, I think Tam’s right, this might just change our world.


Our encounter with Ami-Mai at the Messages in the Heart exhibition resulted in the inclusion of one of her paintings as the cover image for the Summer issue of Asylum magazine  Her poem –  Please God someone save the NHS- is also included in that latest issue. You can subscribe to Asylum here.

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