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Shaun Caton


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Audio interview with Shaun Caton

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Caton, Shaun (Mr) (Subject of)


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I’m Shaun Caton, and I’ve worked at Homerton University Hospital now for sixteen and a half years – I’m the art curator here – though independent of that I’m an artist and I work pretty much worldwide. So these things collaborate and come together to make the unusual job that I hold here. I work in the hospital full-time now, I organise exhibitions – we’ve had thirty two exhibitions over the years. We form partnerships and alliances with many of London’s top galleries and museums who generously lend us some of their artworks. We also work with the local community extensively and also out patients too, who contribute to our arts programme. We currently have an exhibition of their work on view in the education centre

I arrived here in 1989 because a friend who was visiting me at the time had a stroke. This was certainly a very unfortunate event and certainly had nothing to do with my cooking skills I hope. But I accompanied my friend to the hospital because I was naturally concerned. And it was my first visit to Homerton and I noticed around the grounds and around the corridors there were a great many works of art. And I thought it is incredibly very unusual that a so-called very deprived area to have so much art on view in a public space. My friend actually recovered and was discharged from hospital but I was left with this question mark in my head ’who had left all this art work in the hospital and why… in the East-end of London Just tucked away and this collection was just sitting there. And this question remained in my head for a number of years until I came back here in 1995 to start an experimental service with long-stay patients and ambulatory patients – to alleviate boredom and distress for some of these patients. We decided to experiment in offering them art workshops and this was very much a rudimentary service to start with – I would literally wheel a trolley of art materials around the hospital and work at patients bedsides for as long as they wanted me to. Now this was just a part-time job then – I had other jobs as well. And the service was quite successful in that it engaged patients and it helped them to come to terms with stress and deal with problems associated with perhaps being long-stay patients. So it was decided to take me on and to set up this programme with patients who’ve got brain injuries. And by brain injuries I mean they were acquired in accidents on the road, victims of crime, or organic… like victims of strokes or tumours. So I had to start from scratch working with people who have limited speech or visual impairment, severe communication and cognition problems. And it was really an evolution for me through time to work through art with people who are vulnerable and who may have a completely different perspective of reality to most of us. And over the years I’ve developed this service now to twice a week and it is supported very much so by the residents of Hackney, because Hackney has the largest concentration of artists in Europe. I believe that there are over 12,000 artists in the borough and of course they all write to me offering to donate works of art to the now famous art collection, and also more importantly offering their services here as volunteers. So since my time I’ve actually been responsible for employing over 700 volunteers all of whom were or are professional artists, who’ve dedicated their expertise, time and knowledge helping our patients, in many ways to express themselves through the power of art.

I’ve been exposed to thousands of patients during the long, long time that I’ve been here and some of them are, of course, wonderful, colourful local characters and I can’t really discuss in too much detail who they are, but I can tell you certain stories perhaps about one or two of them. I’ve had a patient that was a psychic medium that claimed she could read my mind, I’ve had patients here who have never done art before in their lives, and after one or two attempts are churning out abstract expressionist masterpieces, I question the authenticity of how much they know about art when they come in and they tell me they know nothing about art, that they’ve not been exposed to it and they can do this. I see a lot of courage and a lot of strength from patients with terrible disabilities, almost insurmountable it might seem at the onset of their treatment. And I see them, not just through doing art, but as a combination perhaps of this activity, improving their psychological well being and generally their mood is quite upbeat. Certainly some of the sessions are quite boisterous and highly energetic. Frank Dobson the MP came here once I seem to recall, and whilst visiting I brought 35 schoolchildren in from a local school to do a special programme with the patients. Now it’s very hard to manage 35 school kids in this small room, and inevitably green paint got dropped on the floor, so yes, the minister’s boot got stamped in the paint and there was a series of green footprints leaving this room and travelling round the hospital. Similarly Princess Anne has been in this room and I certainly chewed her ear off for longer than protocol allowed – wouldn’t anyone? She was here and we were told we had 10 minutes to talk, and I thought ‘well yes, you may think so but I have a lot to say’ and I introduced her to all the staff – that wasn’t protocol. I explained what we are doing and how much money we hope to raise. And she actually sparkled, she was very interested. We’ve had the lady Mayoress in here from City of London who spent over an hour talking with patients. And her minder was saying ‘[cough cough] excuse me Madam, we have to leave’ and she said ‘not just yet, not yet’. So we’ve had all sorts of characters in the room. There’s been famous film stars… the Queen was here in 2000, she came.

The Homerton Hospital has changed a lot over the time span that I’ve been here, it’s certainly got much bigger – we’ve merged now with the City and Hackney Trust which was the mental health trust. When I joined in 1995 there was a separate building for the mental health patients and the service users – which is the large pink building to the left as you come in. And to allay fears that having this type of patient on site, we did an exhibition called care and control, and that was ostensibly to try to show to the local community the positive side of mental health issues, by showing some aspects of their artwork. And within that exhibition we had paintings, drawings, photographs, collages, mixed-media artworks – it was a huge success. As a result of people viewing some of this artwork they had a much more positive feeling about sharing this site with psychiatric services users. And so the hospital has got bigger now, I think there is 300,600 staff and when I started there was less than half that. Almost all the exterior space seems to have been built on – the hospital has certainly expanded and got taller and wider. We’re lucky here in the brain injuries unit that we have a therapy garden which is quite mature now, and this a beautiful green space or enclave for the patients to just sit and meditate and chill out. And it’s sadly one of the few green spaces left on the site now. Although I do remember last year we did a project which involved cutting down some Plane trees on the site and these were over a hundred years old and the Plane trees were recycled into art workworks by a group of female artists – and they were turned into beautiful polished, veneered artworks for the new maternity centre. And one is a ruler that measures the amount of births since 1915 I believe to the present day, in hospitals on this site.

I should probably point out that Homerton is built on the site of a former workhouse, which I believe was the London Metropolitan Workhouse, built in 1854, that was demolished in 1936 and when the eastern hospital was built here and just small pockets of that building remain now because in 1986 Homerton Hospital was opened and remains to this day the biggest hospital in Hackney
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