The Creative Activity that might just Change the World: a guest blog by Tam Martin Fowles
Tam Martin Fowles, founder of Hope in the Heart, recently attended a Madzines workshop and discovered a new tool for radical change.
Until a few weeks ago, the word “zine” wasn’t really a part of my vocabulary. I had vaguely heard of these grassroots booklets, and come across one or two on a stall run by edgy young print-makers at a local festival. I’d seen workshops advertised and vaguely wondered what they might entail. I had no idea that zine-making was about to crash into my life as a powerful new tool that would not only enrich my work as a creative workshop facilitator and tentative mad activist, but also my entire creative life.
Since I was a small child, I have turned to creativity to both escape the hardships of my existence and express them. I have drawn, painted, collaged, sculpted, crafted, journaled, written and illustrated poetry, made mini-videos and thrown together three novels and half a memoir/self-help book (all so far – quite justifiably – unpublished). So, when I was invited to attend a workshop on creating queer and mad zines less than two months ago, I thought it might be fun – but probably nothing new.
I was kind of right – and also very wrong.
Zine-making turned out to be delightfully familiar, bringing together as it did many of the creative media that have been both hobbies and life-savers for me over six decades. And it was definitely fun. But there was a paradoxical newness within the familiarity. In zine-making I found both an unexpected homecoming and an exciting new potential that I am only just beginning to tap.
I first met Tam Hart a few weeks before that fateful workshop, at an open-mike event in a pub in Central London. The event was to raise awareness of Soteria London, a growing community that exists, in common with other Soteria projects around the world, to promote humane, non-coercive mental health services and provide alternatives to hospitalisation for people experiencing extreme states. As someone who has experienced their fair share of extreme states, it is a cause close to my heart, and when Tam invited me to a zine-making event, I was excited and intrigued.
For me, nothing says “welcome” like a huge table covered in magazines, coloured pens, card, scissors and glue. These materials are a rare affirmation that I belong. They are a promise that I can bask safely in my element, without the requirement to be “the right kind of human” or the judgement and subtle rejection – or exhausting self-betrayal – that inevitably accompanies such a requirement.
This sense of belonging and safety is what I try to create for the people who attend the workshops I run – through Hope in the Heart, the social enterprise I founded in 2012 – but it is a rare thing for me to be the guest in such an environment.
The workshop’s introduction was warm, informative – and succinct, leaving plenty of time to create. The group was diverse and friendly. We chatted companionably as we cut, wrote, drew and stuck. There were examples of zines to peruse. I was particularly touched by one whose minimal words and illustrations potently relayed the author’s childhood experience of visiting their mother in a psychiatric institution. It inspired me to make something similarly minimal, yet profoundly meaningful to me, about an experience as a mad mother. I was amazed at how simple yet cathartic the process was.
As I wrote and collaged and illustrated, I was transported back to childhood, when I used to lose myself in making tiny books for my younger brothers. There is something childlike in zine-making that I hadn’t experienced for a long time, and which called and captivated me. Perhaps it was the happy childhood memories, of which I have very few. It was also the welcome feeling that I couldn’t get this wrong; that anything was allowed, and appropriate. These few, uneven pages were a safe place to lay out and honour my mad life in all its chaotic technicolour reality.
And, just like that, I was hooked. I knew this wasn’t going to be a one-off fun afternoon resulting in a single zine. I buzzed gently with excitement. A nascent new passion at the age of 62. Excellent!
As a survivor of trauma in childhood, and madness in adulthood, I have long been aware of the power of creativity as a tool to express and understand difficult emotions. I know it can bring subconscious material to the surface and communicate at a level that bypasses the intellect, like a current of energy flowing between artist and receiver. I have experienced how this communication can transcend language and perceived division, time, space and even death.
For example, I have stood before a work of art, or listened past the words of a poem, and wept as I’ve absorbed the essence of its creator; a fellow human being that I would never meet, who may be long-dead, but whose creation inspires, moves, agitates, soothes or awakens me from beyond my current situation.
It is this kind of transpersonal communication I have hoped to evoke in visitors to the Messages from the HeART exhibitions I have been organising, with my Hope in the Heart associates, over the past year or so.
The exhibitions feature art, poetry and other creations by people with lived experience of mental health challenges and associated issues, each containing a message for “people in power”, including specific service-providers, services, commissioners, politicians and/or society in general.
I have come to believe that this kind of intentional creative communication has the power to engage and move people, including those who have – consciously or not – detached themselves from the pain of others, and sometimes from their own innate humanity. Compassion fatigue is prolific and perhaps inevitable within service provision, including psychiatry and politics. Presented with stories of hardship and adversity time and again, even those entered their profession because of a deep desire to help others and change the world can stop hearing, or remembering to care.
Art can cut through the fatigue and the inertia. It can penetrate logic and blast through reason, bureaucracy and academic armour, shining a light of pure connection from one human heart to another. Art can be a concentrated power that sows seeds of empathy, understanding and reconciliation within those who gaze upon it or hear its voice. As a tool for effective activism, it is under-used and underrated. It can be a powerful medicine for healing – both its creator and receiver, as well as wider communities, and maybe even the world!
Could tiny, “amateur”, sometimes-made-in-half-an-hour zines be the ideal creative vehicle for such a task? I think perhaps they could, and I am keen to introduce this concept, and my growing stash of magazines, cards and stencils, coloured fine-liners and stickers and string and ink and stamps and glue, to the participating artists in our Hope in the Heart projects, and anyone else who would like to play.
Tam Martin Fowles – Founding Director Hope in the Heart CIC and “Lived Experience” Consultant and Mad Activist
Read Tam Hart’s blog post about the workshop that she ran for us last year – on Tenderness as a Tool.