INTERVIEW: Never Normal | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Social Distance by Michael Crew 2020 

Newcastle-based Chilli Studios is a charity which supports those who experience mental health conditions or social exclusion, with the aim of engaging people through creative activity. Arguably their work has never been more important, and this month sees their annual exhibition take place at Newcastle’s Vane Gallery.

This year has only highlighted the importance of art to our mental health and wellbeing.” Says the studio’s arts coordinator Jo Burke. “We use art as a powerful and liberating tool to often distract and heal ourselves, to self-express, to also challenge and make actions towards change.”

The exhibition features work by over 50 artists based in the region, and Jo is enthusiastic about the diverse mediums and subject matter that they’ve tackled. “It’s such an exciting array of work. It includes work from someone’s very first art piece to members who have extensive training or exhibited nationally.”

Having missed their annual show last year, this year’s exhibition is even more important to the community. “It is a celebration of the immense creativity of our members and their valuable personal experiences through the testing year of 2020-2021. We have work directly looking at the topic of COVID-19, including personal stories of resilience, as well as reactions to the political sphere but we also have pieces that celebrate the relaxing qualities of art and the act of creation. From minimalist drawings, poems, bright abstract mixed media, to collaborative playful ceramic works – there will be something for everyone to identify with here as well as challenge.”

How can we return to the new normal when we and many others might not identify or feel accepted in the old normality?

The title of the exhibition is also a telling one; Jo explains that many of their members and staff questioned the concept of the media and politicised tag of ‘the new normal’. “This title is a playful approach to the media’s concept of ‘the new normal’, this show questions notions of ‘normality’ and our individual and collective experiences of mental health. ‘Normal’ being a problematic word, especially when anyone outside the norm is seen as being ‘other’. How can we return to the new normal when we and many others might not identify or feel accepted in the old normality? This is a bit of a shout to the fact that there needs to be a lot more change and support for mental health, marginalised and vulnerable groups to feel at ease and valued in society. The lockdown and pandemic certainly has highlighted the importance of our mental health and we hope this is a shift to a better overall cultural change.”

Chilli Studios themselves have been under immense pressure due to the pandemic; forced to change their provisions significantly in order to continue to support their community, their members faced further inequalities on a socio-economic scale, dealing with disability, isolation, reduced support and a decline in mental health. It’s a testament to the hard work and dedication of the Chilli Studios team that they were able to adapt and thrive online, keeping their community connected and supported.

Chilli Studios’ Never Normal exhibition is at Vane Gallery, Newcastle from Wednesday 7th-Saturday 24th July. Those interested in joining Chilli Studios as a member, volunteer or supporter can get in touch via the website or by emailing [email protected]

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