In memory of Richard Muzira
CoolTan Arts volunteer Richard Muzira has tragically died after his bicycle was in collision with a lorry in south London. He is the sixth cyclist to die in London in 13 days. Answers From Big Issue interviewed this amazing man during a visit to CoolTan earlier this year…
By Big Issue vendor Sam Woodlock.//
Today (February, 2013) I went to see a project called the CoolTan Arts Project, in the Elephant and Castle. We went into a very cheerful workshop, which is like a breath of fresh air in its rather bleak surroundings. The workshop consists of one large exhibition space and some smaller rooms which are used for workshops. Just inside the door is a very busy notice board detailing all the events and workshops which happen here, including details of two trips to art exhibitions to Central London, including the almost sold out Freud exhibition.
We were met by the founder Michelle Baharier, Operations Director Jenny Irish and a volunteer named Richard Muzira. Michelle explained to us what the project is about. CoolTan is an arts and mental health charity run by and for adults experiencing mental health problems. People that attend the project are known as participants not users, and Michelle explained that they were currently experiencing funding difficulties that meant they were not able to accept as many referrals to the project as they would like. Participants are referred by many different agencies, but while in the past they could attend for as long as necessary, changes in government funding now mean that a time limit is imposed for their attendance. There is some good news though, in that a National Lottery grant has been secured.
Michelle told us about the many benefits that the project has to both the participants and the NHS, in that the art therapy and workshops that the participants enjoy can reduce the need for hospital admissions. Some members of the project will be exhibiting their work at the Alternative Fashion Show on the 20th April, and other participants are working on an exhibition to be held at the centre to celebrate Charles Dickens Bi Centenary. Michelle explained that participants often had many social problems as well as experiencing mental health problems, she estimated at least 25% of the clientele were also part of the “hidden homeless” who move from one friends sofa to another.
We were then taken on a tour of the building by Operations Director Jenny Irish. The main studio space was taken up with the part installed Dickens exhibition, and other parts of the studio space contained some brightly painted ceramics, and some very good poetry. There are many workshops held at CoolTan, including knitting, batik and creative writing. Although the staff had done their best to make the space as professional and welcoming as possible, I noticed that the toilets that the participants used were a portaloo outside the main doors, which put Michelle’s comments about lack of funding into perspective. Jenny then lead us into the computer room, where the IT training took place. As the room was not being used this afternoon, this is where we sat with Richard and Jenny to chat more about the day to day activities at the project.
Richard has been a volunteer at the project for six years now. Jenny proudly told us that Richard received a Civic Award last year for his work at the project. Richard told us that while he has experienced mental health difficulties in the past, he has always been active in his local community, and first came across Cool Tan when they applied for a grant from the Community Council of which he was a member. He laughingly told us how he voted for the grant to be approved, then applied to be a volunteer!!
I asked Richard what was the most important thing about CoolTan. He replied “using art for social change.” He explained to us that he had always been quite active politically and that what he was hoping to achieve at the project was to empower socially marginalized people to express their dissatisfaction through art. He told us that for him personally “expressing myself through art is better than pills.”
Jenny then told us a bit about how the project is unique in London. Although 70% of participants come from local borough Southwark, others come from as far away as Redbridge. CoolTan is unique in that it is a user led project that puts on public exhibitions to integrate people with mental distress with their local community. I asked Jenny about the people that work at CoolTan. Jenny told me that they have six full time staff and two part time. They also have about 40 volunteers. Again CoolTan showed their unique ethos when Jenny explained that the volunteers don’t just come from the local community and students but are also taken from the participants of the project. Jenny told us that they have nearly 100 participants per week, which sadly is down on last year due to the funding cuts.
Time was sadly running out for our interview, as I could happily have sat there talking to Richard and Jenny all afternoon. We just had time for Jenny to tell us about the Largactyl Shuffle, which is a walk that takes place on the third Saturday of each month. These are walks open to the public as well us mental health service users, and they go from the Maudesley Hospital to the Tate Modern, with a different theme each month. This walk has been created by CoolTan to challenge the stigma of mental distress through humour and art. I gave Jenny the last word when I asked her what she enjoyed most about working for CoolTan. She replied with a smile “ The good energy of the place”, and she was right, I could feel it too.
Answers From Big Issue is a project to promote organisations making a social impact. We also train marginalised people in online journalism.