Knitting Time is an illustrated poetry collection and visual arts exhibition by Colin Hambrook, which reflects on themes of loss and ‘psychosis’. Anne Teahan talked to him about the work and found out how his mother used to knit universes…
In interviewing Colin Hambrook, two aspects of his life need to be understood: firstly his productivity and effectiveness in championing Disability Arts and secondly his intensely personal work as a creative artist. As Editor of Disability Arts Online (DAO), he has nurtured a thriving artistic community. There must be a long list of artists, performers and writers (myself included) who can thank Colin for the first opportunity to publish or promote their work. The number of editorial hours and grant applications that have gone into maintaining DAO as a viable and thriving journal can only be imagined. Add to this his contribution to the Arts Council’s ‘Creative Case’ document, and a busy, fruitful and productive public life emerges.
This productivity is all the more remarkable in the light of his uniquely pressured and traumatic childhood. The fact that he survived childhood at all is a story to be shared. And ‘Knitting Time’, his latest collection of poems and drawings, takes the remarkable circumstances of his early years as a starting point. Colin was brought up in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, and from early on, he had many impossible ideas imposed upon him, not least, that the world was due to end in 1975: “And so when 1975 came and I was 16, it was quite a surprise to find out that it was still here!” Colin recalls.
But stranger still was his mother’s belief that her son was born to save the world. “She believed that I had come to her as a spirit when I was still in the womb to tell her to take up the Jehovah’s Witness faith and so from a very fragile age I absorbed a view of the world and my place in it, which had no connection with reality.” I asked Colin if he was offered any alternative way of understanding things as a child, and he tells me “my father tried to help me realise that it was all a bit nutty.”
The confusion of this situation was compounded by a cruel act of rejection. When Colin’s mother developed schizophrenia, the family were thrown out of the Jehovah’s Witness faith, despite her devotion to their beliefs “…and everything got worse after the psychiatric system got involved.”
Religion started a process which lead her into the psychiatric system with its liberal use of medication and Electro Convulsive Therapy or ECT. Colin recounts how her memory and ability to recognise him were damaged. Furthermore her general health was harmed by psychiatric drugs which prevent the body from creating white blood cells. Her immune system was affected and she eventually died of a heart attack due to lack of exercise and high levels of sedation.
For Colin, childhood was not a process of learning how to negotiate his place in the world, but instead something he would have to spend his adult life unraveling and knitting back together again. Now in his fifties, he is able to reflect on all this. “At this point in my life it feels important to look back and to make work about what I’ve lived through. After all it has been a pretty amazing journey, all said and done. ‘Knitting Time’ is a place for me to explore poetically and artistically, the strange childhood that I had.’
Colin’s relationship with his mother, and the fragility of her health provides the central image and starting point of ‘Knitting Time’. His cover drawing shows a soft sail boat with knitted sail and hull; each individual stitch is drawn with exquisite clarity, in black and white; this fragile, woolen vessel floats on an ocean overlooked by twin moons partially merged together like cells which have not divided.
When I ask Colin about the knitting in his title, he uses a phrase which – like his drawings – has both a magical and a Surrealist resonance: “My mother used to knit universes…” He explains that the activity of knitting ‘was her way of dealing with psychosis; with having a sensitive mind…’ In his poem ‘Knitting Time’ he describes her troubled nights when
‘…her thoughts won’t settle….
And once the terror takes, there’s hell to pay…’
And so she employs
‘the safe place of cross stitch, a stitch in time
Where the breath can be measured
just one step, one small step, beyond the fear.’
She would channel the intensity of her feelings, into the repetitive process of knitting, each stitch a focal point. Many of Colin’s ink drawings are made from a meticulous assemblage of tiny black dots. I ask him if the dot-by-dot layering relates to his mother’s stitch-by-stitch endurance of psychosis. “Yes that’s the correlation,” he says “my drawing technique has a similar repetative, meditative quality to it. Drawing helps me relax and to concentrate. I’m not necessarily a brilliant draughtsperson, but I make marks to create textures in which I can find a beauty.”
These rich textures of dots have an intense charge, like clusters of tiny electrons. And the images they form are equally intense. In his drawing ‘The Meaning of Psychosis’ a teenage boy travels through a landscape – or perhaps a mindscape – which is dense with magical imagery.
Nature is drawn in rich variations of lines and dots, like a traditional woodcut illustration. Everything is heightened; every branch or blade of grass adds to the visual fascination, but it all feels on the edge of menace. I am reminded of fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel, where children struggle with their fear of the forest. Will there be witches or goblins hiding behind trees? Is the world a safe place?
In many of Colin’s drawings you feel that his marks are holding together powerful but potentially destructive forces. If it wasn’t for the black lines and dots, the boy in the forest might be overwhelmed and the world might disintegrate.
A tree is so thoroughly drawn and anchored, it seems to take over the earth with extended roots. But some forms are made solely of dots, such as the cloud-like faces in the sky which are on the verge of diffusion or evaporation, like cartoon ghosts.
The drawings are often divided into areas, either by clearly defined shapes, or by softer, melting, membranes. Perhaps these boundaries represent a distinction between the Real and Unreal – between the solidity of a tree and the illusiveness of hallucinations.
Colin explains that ‘growing up with varying degrees of psychosis’ meant that making these distinctions was often a problem. As a young man with a fragile and precarious sense of self, he had difficulty distinguishing between the real external world and his internal experiences. “…one of the things about ‘psychosis’ – is that it’s very hard to believe yourself. Your own thoughts and feelings are very often at odds with the world and with the perceptions – the feedback – that the world gives you as an individual.”
So where one person would see a crow hopping around Alexandra Park, Colin would experience a creature of malicious intent and power. Psychosis enriched the texture of his world but also threatened to rupture it. The luscious imagery within Colin’s drawings and poems, raises the question of ‘psychosis’ as a creative asset. Colin acknowledges that it can be a strong source of artistic inspiration and offers a rich plethora of imagery: “Once you can say to yourself ‘this is my mind playing tricks on me and I can enjoy that’, it becomes a leap of faith towards trusting something deeper within yourself. Sometimes ‘psychosis’ can liberate the imagination into flight, because there’s no ground under your feet and those experiences can be wonderful.”
In his poem ‘The Meaning of Psychosis’ he describes the experience as an antidote to the: ‘..relentless mundane’ of everyday life. Each verse leads with the idea of letting go and falling:
‘Falling into that hill
Where earth, sun moon and stars connect…’
And in his poem ‘The Mirror that wouldn’t look Back’ even night time terrors offer some spectacle: He describes his childhood memories of fear at bedtime as:
‘…the nightly carnival, playing in dirty yellow light at the top of the stairs’.
I ask him about the contradictions which psychosis brings together: an unwanted terror can be a visually enchanting carnival. Can he both relish the richness and imagery of psychosis but at the same time, wish to be rid of it? “Yes, definitely. There are a lot of opposites in the work. It’s very much about the paradoxical nature of the world – of life. I think that’s the gift that having a sensitive brain gives you…”
This also reinforces an idea that will ring true with all artists: “The material world view – the kind of black and white idea of what is and isn’t real – is a very narrow frame of reference.”
If ‘psychosis’ is a mixed blessing, Colin’s experience of the psychiatric system is not. A key theme of Knitting Time and of his life story is survival of the mental health system. I want to understand how he made the journey from fractured childhood into a creative and productive adulthood. A school teacher once told Colin that he hadn’t expected him to survive into adult life at all. Perhaps this teacher would now be surprised to find Colin in his 5th decade, editing a thriving cultural journal, promoting countless artists, and with an expressive body of personal work as a creative artist and poet.
Colin explains that an essential part of his survival and development has been the Disability Arts movement, where he found a community of artists who are in a similar situation of being seen as ‘different’ in varying ways. “I was attracted to that sense of acceptance” he says. “And it has helped me to grow and to find confidence in being myself.”
But I still wonder how he got through the mental health system, where his mother’s health and ultimately her life were lost through medication. I ask about the thorny issue of psychiatric drugs: has he been able to manage without them? Colin explains that as a younger man it was very, frustrating and difficult, but: “I did a lot of running in my twenties and thirties, in order to not to get caught up in the mental health system and not be labeled and given psychiatric drugs. I’ve had periods of my life on medication – but largely I’ve managed to get through without. And that’s been important – very beneficial for me.” He also explains that: ‘It’s got easier as I’ve got older. The incidence of having those experiences have become less, I’ve become more stable.”
Colin, unsurprisingly, is passionate in his opposition to psychiatric drugs and the medical model of psychiatry: “I feel that it’s really, really important to not rely on drugs… the idea that you just give people drugs that dull the mind – and that’s a cure. And if you’re lucky it just dulls the mind; if you’re unlucky then you end up with a whole range of damaging health conditions because of the damage those drugs can do.”
Because the psychiatric system is entirely geared toward the administration of drugs, they do not search for other ways to manage symptoms and to help people live with what psychosis presents. He himself believes that there are other answers for people living with mental health problems. “I think that self determination; learning strategies for dealing with the unreliability of your mind, finding ways to work with yourself – are far, far more creative in terms of your own self esteem and your sense of being able to stand up in the world.”
And of course in Knitting Time he illustrates the value of both poetry and art, in supporting these aims. Like the artist and author Mervyn Peake whom he admires, writing and drawing are equally vital and related forms of expression. Peake wrote about a childhood of strangeness and dislocation in his Gormenghast novels, but also drew darkly fantastical illustrations of poetry and fables for children. I find a similar sense of magical narrative within Knitting Time. Fairy tales often deal with childhood fear and adult menace. But they also offer hope of rescue and redemption.
As a child, Colin saw his mother victimised by a fundamentalist, milleniarian religion and then the psychiatric system and was powerless to do anything about it. As an adult, the poems and images which relate to his mother feel like an attempt to rescue her and soothe her pain. And the work he does with DAO takes this strong desire to put things right that much further into the world.
Many of the writers and artists who use DAO as a forum for discussion or to access creative opportunities, will make work which challenges institutional approaches to illness and disability, often in ways which could not be imagined when his mother was trapped in the psychiatric system. So it seems to me that his earliest childhood experiences have worked their way into everything, from the meticulous mark-making of his drawing, to the stewarding and showcasing of artists through DAO.
I am struck by the powerful sense of commitment to DAO and I ask him to talk about the strong sense of responsibility which he carries. He puts this in the context of his ‘most ridiculous childhood’ by reminding me of his mother’s earnest belief that her son was an incarnation of Jesus. As responsibility goes, this was a tall order for a tiny child to take on!
“That sort of imperative to try and save the world – there’s a part of me that has laughed at it through my life. I can see how ridiculous I would be as a saviour figure. But at the same time… there’s an element of wanting to put something positive into the world.’
And so Colin has channeled an impossible childhood demand, into something constructive and creative in the world. For him the Disability Arts movement and all the people who’ve worked to build it, have provided the structure that he has needed. The movement has done for him, what the mental health system could not. As Knitting Time reaches publication, I ask Colin about his ambitions for the work. His primary wish is that “it will open up a conversation about what psychosis is and why it is that the psychiatric system has really got it so wrong.”
Furthermore, with the survivor movement suffering from huge cutbacks, it is all the more pressing that he shares his story with other artists who are trying to find a place in the world: “There’s a desperate need there for empowerment – for people supporting each other mutually through those experiences,” he says.
Colin acknowledges that the process of sharing his life story with all its vulnerabilities involves a high degree of personal exposure – “for me artistically it’s a process of taking my clothes off in public”, but he feels this is an important and necessary thing for him to do: “There’s something of value in my story as a piece of social history; and of finding a constructive path through challenging experiences, which I hope that other people will identify with.”
And so there is. My own response to the work is that I have been given a glimpse of things through a reversing lens; this is how the world would look if my nightime dreams and internal fears were to escape unfiltered into my waking state of mind. But the images also touch on universal themes, just as shared myths and stories do. They show the survival of an almost impossible childhood through an adult lens; they express a deep compassion for parental frailty.
Knitting Time demonstrates that the process of making art can become a process of self-repair. And it also – most touchingly – succeeds as an act of rescue across a generation. Through Knitting Time, his mother’s soft and fragile universe has survived against all the odds as a woolen vessel floating on a black and white sea, overlooked by smiling moons.
An exhibition of Knitting Time and an illustrated poetry collection, published by Waterloo Press, are due to be launched at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex from 8 October – 3 November 2013.