Exploring mental health through artists’ books

This week (18 – 24 May) is Mental Health Awareness Week and there are some great conversations being had online. It’s great that talking about mental health is being supported more and more in everyday life too – all of us have mental health, just like we have physical health and the two often go hand in hand.

Archives can be places to explore how health has been described and medicine developed across the years. However they are also places to capture what life is like now and record lived experiences (see our call for donations relating to the current Coronavirus pandemic). This is also the case with our Prescriptions: Artists’ Books collection. We’ve written about these wonderful objects previously (see posts here) but today we want to share some of the books that explicitly relate to mental health.

All the images used in this post are copyright of Egidija Ciricaite.

Inside : An artists’s work: living with depression (Yvonne J. Foster, 2013, PSC34)

Image of pages from 'Inside : An artists's work: living with depression' by Yvonne J. Foster

Image of pages from ‘Inside : An artists’s work: living with depression’ by Yvonne J. Foster

Many of the artists’ books in our collection seek to deepen dialogue between patients and medical staff, and this work is one example. Here, Foster explores how it feels to live through a breakdown using altered photographs and scribbled images. Foster is a Brighton-based artist focusing on miniature works; you can view her website here.

No mind (Gaby Berglund Cárdenas, 2014, PSC28)

Image of 'No mind' by Gaby Berglund Cárdenas

Image of ‘No mind’ by Gaby Berglund Cárdenas


Mindfulness and meditation are often discussed in relation to mental health; many have found such techniques help to manage anxiety and depression. Cárdenas lived in South Korea whilst studying for a Masters in Fine Arts; whilst she was there she explored Buddhism and the role meditation has within the religion. For Cárdenas writing the phrase “no mind” became a way to quiet her brain and body. This piece is composed of an antique spool, around which Nepalese paper is wrapped; holding the object also makes you aware of the fragility of the work. Today Cárdenas lives in Sweden; you can find more of her works here.

Protecting my mind (Gunilla Åsberg, 2015, PSC41)

Image of 'Protecting my mind' by Gunilla Åsberg

Image of ‘Protecting my mind’ by Gunilla Åsberg

Asberg worked alongside a psychologist over several months to record the experiences of women dealing with stress-related illnesses, and this book records their stories. On the right-hand side of the book, Åsberg uses text from Swedish health and safety regulations but the fourth category is her own work, written to highlight the lack of mental health protection in employment legislation. You can view more of Åsberg’s art here.

Mind maps: The cumulative (hidden) experiences of the life of Penny Alexander 2016 (Penny Alexander, 2016, PSC36)

Image of 'Mind maps: The cumulative (hidden) experiences of the life of Penny Alexander 2016' by Penny Alexander

Image of ‘Mind maps: The cumulative (hidden) experiences of the life of Penny Alexander 2016’ by Penny Alexander

Alexander began creating artists’ books after her experiences of postnatal depression. This book, filled with pages of typewriter art, draws direct correlation between the experiences of everyday life and our mental wellbeing. Adams explores this correlation further by juxataposing maps of where she’s lived throughout the work – again highlighting the physical importance of place and self to health.

The book of common prayer (Sophie Adams, 2016, PSC6)

Image of 'The book of common prayer' by Sophie Adams

Image of ‘The book of common prayer’ by Sophie Adams

Common prayer books are traditionally found throughout the Anglican Christian world and contain forms of service, daily prayers and Bible readings. Here, Adams has transformed the book – using folding, not cutting – so that when it is spanned open the word ‘prozac’ can be seen. Prozac – or fluoxetine, to use its medical name – is an antidepressant drug used to treat many mental health conditions. Antidepressants frequently rank among the most prescribed medications in both the US and UK; they help many people to recover from illness but can also be indicative of the state of society’s mental health. By using folding patterns to create the word, Adams also explores the repetitive actions that can also be calming in periods of anxiety. You can see other works by Adams here.

Cumulatively these books help to show not only the diversity of mental health but also the strength of responses to it. Recording and making work in response to periods of mental illness can, for some, be an act of healing in itself. The books in Prescriptions also serve to challenge and improve relationships between treatment-giver and treatment-receiver; however they also contribute to opening up dialogue and removing stigma around lived experiences. They can inspire responses and new approaches to mental health – whether with you to create your own art or with generating empathy and understanding on any scale, be it individual or wider.

If you’d like to see images of these books or the rest of the Prescriptions collection these can be viewed through LibrarySearch; you are welcome to view these items in our Reading Room when we open again. For more information about the research being done at Kent relating to artists’ books (including the book which accompanied the 2016 exhibition of these works at the Beaney museum in Canterbury) please click here.

The University of Kent has many resources that can help if you’re concerned about your mental health; see the guide for students and staff wellbeing pages

‘Prescriptions: artists’ books’ exhibition

Special Collections & Archives are displaying an exhibition called Prescriptions: artists’ books in the Templeman Gallery. The pieces on display are from a collection accessioned into SC&A last autumn.

Florascript: Wild Garlic, Yarrow, Foxglove, by Cas Holmes. Photo by Egidija Ciricaite

The artists’ books in this collection were first shown at Prescriptions, an exhibition at The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge in Canterbury (21 April—25 September 2016), curated by Dr Stella Bolaki and Egidija Čiricaitė.

The Prescriptions exhibition at the Beaney was structured around the book art of Martha A. Hall (1949-2003), a former teacher and professional weaver. Martha was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989, and in 1998 she began documenting her experiences with breast cancer and her interactions with the medical community through book art.


Other artists were invited to submit artists’ books for the exhibition, reflecting on the themes of illness, grieving, surgery, birth, recovery, mental health, aging, treatments, and wellbeing. Over 200 artists worldwide submitted nearly 250 works, of which 88 were selected for the exhibition. 71 of these were deposited with Special Collections & Archives at the University of Kent in autumn 2016.

Core Sample, by Allison Cooke Brown. Photo by Egidija Ciricaite

We are really excited about this collection, one of the most recent accessions into SC&A. The works in Prescriptions: artists’ books complements the teaching that occurs through seminars held in Special Collections & Archives (particularly those which interrogate materiality and the physicality of books), and also demonstrates SC&A’s commitment to preserving collections of varied formats which actively support current research and teaching at the University.

Prescriptions takes place as part of a wider research project on artists’ books and the medical humanities, organised by the University of Kent and the University of New England (Maine Women Writers Collection), and supported by the Wellcome Trust. You can find out more information on that project on the Artists’ Books and the Medical Humanities research project site and the School of English web pages.

Prescriptions exhibition in the Templeman Gallery