"The most powerful antidote to despair is hope”

A mobile phone snaps an image of a silver tactile pictogram made from embossed foil that says 'Art is hope'

A silver tactile pictogram fashioned from embossed foil - one of many making up the glittering Book of Hope, created by over 40 blind and sight-impaired artists from Kent Association for the Blind for the Hope Exhibition

“Our art group has been meeting for quite a long time and new people come into a warm and friendly environment. They can ease someone in who may be feeling nervous, who hasn’t been out of their home for a while and has sight loss. So you are immediately with your peer group. People who know what your life is like.

“The fact someone has walked in the door … they are a winner. Should they choose to pick up a pen and start taking part in our activities, well they are also a winner,” says Wendy Daws, as she explains the background to the Kent Association for the Blind (KAB) Book of Hope.

It’s one of 11 art works by local artists and community groups, co-produced with people who have experience of poor mental health, that make up the Hope Exhibition.

Currently on regional tour, after over a year in the making, the collection of installations, paintings, ceramics, creative writing, and textiles, representing hope to raise awareness of suicide prevention, enjoyed an inspiring official launch at Margate’s Turner Contemporary in mid-July.

Mess Room artist and KAB volunteer Wendy Daws (background) shares the experience of exploring the Book of Hope at the Turner Contemporary launch event

The journey

On a bright afternoon in a packed Foyle Rooms overlooking the town’s Bay, the Book’s amber and silver tactile pictograms catch the sunlight and shimmer. It’s an interactive piece that people with, and without, sight can read and find their own story.

“It’s not so much about the work itself; it’s about the journey; about spending time with people that you are comfortable with and that ripples out into your wider life. You leave the studio with a sense of happiness, you’ve tried a new skill perhaps, and you are going for coffee with someone you didn’t know two weeks ago,” says Wendy, a Mess Room collective artist that volunteers with KAB.

The importance of the journey of the art-making for people who have experience of poor mental health is echoed by everyone in the gallery.

Talking about Broadstairs Town Shed’s exhibit, a collection of beautifully crafted wooden bowls called Bowls of Hope, the charity’s coordinator Helen Robertson says: “Woodworking really is brilliant for mental wellbeing. When you are on the lathe you are completely engrossed, absorbed in that moment.”

Organised by the Kent and Medway Suicide Prevention Team, and funded by the Kent and Medway Hope Community Arts Fund, grants totalling £21,000 were divided among the successful applicants to help bring the vision of hope to life. The fund is backed by Kent County Council (KCC), Medway Council and NHS Kent and Medway.

A person wearing headphones in front of TV screen that says 'Hold on'

Visual poem Love After All was created by deaf, autistic songwriter Kate Lynn-Devere, who is based in Herne Bay, with input from the neurodivergent and gender-diverse community for the Hope Exhibition. Using plain English, stripped-back music and collective voices, the piece speaks directly to anyone struggling with their mental health

Symbols of hope

Kicking off a series of heartfelt speeches at the launch, KCC’s Director of Public Health, Dr Anjan Ghosh, says: “One suicide is one suicide too many. The most powerful antidote to despair is hope and this is what this wonderful exhibition is about; and the message from it is really loud and clear: For those who are feeling despair – you are not alone.”

Also symbolising hope at the Turner is the Baton of Hope. Making its first outing since it was carried from Glasgow to Westminster in the UK’s biggest suicide prevention awareness-raising campaign to date, its exquisite design and powerful message draws people to it and many pose with the baton for a picture.

BatonofHopeUK ’s Andrea Sparke (left) with Living Words artist BJ (centre) and Susanna Howard, founder and artistic director of Living Words (right) in conversation with Alice Scutchey

Baton of Hope's Andrea Sparke (left) with Living Words artist BJ (centre) and Susanna Howard, founder and artistic director of Living Words (right) in conversation with Alice Scutchey. Alice works with Andrea on the Baton of Hope's trailblazing Organising Committee

“The baton is the first physical symbol of hope that we think has ever been created,” says Andrea Sparke, a member of the Baton of Hope Organising Committee. “We celebrate achievements with trophies but have nothing to symbolise hope to people when they are in a dark place. Suicide is a very isolating topic but the baton campaign has brought people together.”

The commitment to raising awareness of the support available in Kent and Medway to anyone living with suicidal thoughts, urges to self-harm, or the loss of a loved one who has taken their own life is strong.

And all around there are stories of making a difference.

Unique and proud

Artist Mona Whitton, the guiding hand behind the Out of the Fire exhibit, 300 uniquely decorated, handmade bowls, displayed to together to form one connected piece, explains: “Mental health issues are really important to me. I used to work as a teacher in a mental health facility so I thought it was really amazing that something was being done to raise awareness and wanted to get involved.”

Mona Whitton in front of the 300 colourful bowls that make up the Out of the Fire exhibit

Artist Mona Whitton in front of the 300 colourful ceramics that make up the Out of the Fire exhibit - as displayed at the Turner Contemporary

Keen to target her project at men “because of their high suicide rate”, Mona chose the technique of Raku to produce the pots that were then individually decorated in workshops. In Raku, pottery is removed from the kiln when red hot and then cooled rapidly, often in combustible material like sawdust or paper. Each pot, says Mona, represents a person, unique and proud to highlight their “breakages” as part of their story, which adds to their beauty.

“It was really important that I thought of the kind of art form that would bring men together,” she recalls. “And all I could think of was BBQs and I thought 'fire; fire brings people together' -  and they were fascinated by the process. It was lovely to see strangers comparing bowls. Every bowl came out different. We are all different and that is ok. Some of the bowls broke, and that’s ok. We have to try and find the beauty in what we have got, not what we think we should have.”

The launch event is also full of remembering.

“What was remarkable about the day the funding was announced (for the Hope projects),” says the Shed’s Helen, “is we were trying to think of what we could do and that afternoon Pam turned up with a brand new lathe. It was her husband Tom’s lathe and she told us about Tom’s life and we thought right, we have to do this.” Tom, a skilled woodworker, sadly took his life in October 2022.

“The turners involved in the Hope project are members who the Shed has helped turn their lives around. It’s been a great project to build understanding.”

Positive vibes

For Nim Thorp, a gifted participant in both the Hannah Whittaker-led Draw Hope and the Book of Hope, the exhibition has been a chance to share artistic talent and meet new people.

Draw Hope is a collaborative project that invited individuals with lived experience to craft unique trees that symbolise their individual life journey, along with their aspirations.

Professional artist Hannah Whittaker and collaborator Nim Thorpe standing in front of the colourful 'Draw Hope' trees

Hannah Whittaker (right) led the collaborative project 'Draw Hope' . In this photo Hannah is joined by Nim Thorp, who created the tallest tree in the kaleidoscopic work

Nim’s tree stands tall and colourful against the white wall of the gallery. The vibrant tones give off positive vibes.

It’s the perfect backdrop as Dr Ghosh shares with his thoughts with the audience.  “We are living in an age of ever-widening spiritual divide…but even in the darkest days there is hope,” he says. “You are loved. You are valued. You are precious; and life is precious.”

So, please, stay with us.

Find out more about the Hope Exhibition on You Tube

View all the Hope projects on padlet

For information about mental health support in Kent and Medway visit kent.gov.

In an emergency, if someone’s life is at risk, always call 999.

For more about urgent mental health help, visit NHS Kent and Medway.