Interview: Sophie Butler

by Lara Johnson-Wheeler .

I would always hope that I am a doctor that considers the patient in front of me as a whole person with a whole life, not just who I'm seeing at that time. I think the artwork really reminds you of that. It prompts and ensures that you are continuing to think because it evokes conversations and stimulates things that you don’t normally get into in a normal clinical interview.

Lara Johnson-Wheeler: Hi Sophie!, could you tell me a little bit about what you do at Eileen Skellern 1?

Sophie Butler: I'm one of the doctors on the ward at the Maudsley Hospital, Denmark Hill. I'm responsible for medical care and treatment, management of patients while they are here. I joined in August of last year when the project was already up and running and became involved with Hospital Rooms that way.

LJW: What was it like to watch the Hospital Rooms project unfurl and how was the process from your perspective?

SB: It's really exciting to see Niamh and Tim work and how they manage to do things. Before the artists actually came to the ward, there was a lot of work showing them the areas. We took workshops with the artists and staff so that they understood a little bit more about the setting of the particular environment, the staff’s roles and opinions. When artists came to the ward they often came with Niamh and Tim and interacted with the patients on the ward as well.

LJW: Tell me a little bit about the atmosphere on the ward while the Hospital Rooms project was going on. Could you notice a tangible change?

SB: I do think the atmosphere has changed. I think it's difficult to understand how much of an impact your physical environment has on you until it changes, and it is only since it's changed that we've realised that having all of the white walls made it a very homogenous ward. The Hospital Rooms project has created a lot of spaces that now have a different feel to them, a different atmosphere. That's nice for us as staff; our working areas have a very changed atmosphere as well. The family room is now very warm and Nengi Onuku’s artwork lends a very caring atmosphere. The conference room, which we use a lot, also has a new vibrancy. The difference is remarkable.

LJW: How has this caused reactions? You told me a lovely story about an interaction you had with a patient, that you felt was different, because of the presence of the artwork.

SB: Yes, that definitely stuck in my memory. Often the conversations that we have to have with the patients are quite challenging. Recently, when I needed this with one of our patients, I was able to give her a choice about which environment she wanted to sit in. She chose the area that looks like a forest glade - at least that’s what it feels like - and when we sat down we just took a moment and looked around, made a few comments about the art, about what it looked like. Also interestingly, we spoke about the temperature, about different senses that we were having, that there was a nice temperature there. That really set a very different tone and dynamic to the beginning of a conversation, because we started off as two human beings interacting on a level, and we could move into what needed to be done from a very different standpoint. For me, as a doctor, that was a really special thing to be able to do.

LJW: I spoke to the artist, Aimee Mullins, about the piece you're describing, and whether she was conscious of creating an escape when she made the work. Do you think the works provide an escape from traditional concepts of hospitalisation? 

SB: That is difficult for me to say and I wouldn't want to presume to know what a patient might be feeling. The women that are here do not have the choice to be here - they've got no physical freedom whatsoever. I think what the artwork might help do, is give a bit of internal psychological freedom, because you can use the space to think in a different way. It stimulates your internal world a little bit, it does it for me when I sit and look, when I sit in the different environments, so I would hope that would be how the patients feel as well. There is a potential for that.

LJW: I’m interested in the contemplations behind putting these artworks in a hospital space - the difference between that and a gallery. You talked about the fact that the service users are there against their will. Of course, one makes the choice to be viewing these pieces at a gallery space. From your perspective as a doctor, how conscious did you feel you had to be about that sense of choice? 

SB: I think it has to be something one is mindful of. The women on the ward are some of the most vulnerable women in society. As a doctor, I feel a sense of responsibility to be aware of that vulnerability. Niamh and Tim were very aware of that and thereofre they curated pieces with that in mind. And the preparation work, allowing the artists to understand the ward and to understand the staff on the ward, hopefully allowed the artists to be mindful too. As an artist you obviously want the creativity and the freedom, that's absolutely essential , but given the purpose of the art and the audience, I think it's only right that one is mindful. I know the work in the family room was adapted with that in mind. The work is an image of a woman being cared for, but given the context of separation of women and family, I think the artist very carefully thought about how intense that image was, and made it more representative. I think that's a really nice example of the artist being mindful during the project.

LJW: Has being exposed to the art in the ward led you to think differently about the patients or the way that you practice?

SB: You can connect using the art. I would always hope that , as a doctor, I consider the patient in front of me as a whole person with a whole life, not just who I'm seeing at that time. I think the artwork really reminds you of that. It prompts and ensures that you are continuing to think because it evokes conversations and stimulates things that you don’t normally get into during a normal clinical interview.

LJW: A lot of the artists explained that whilst they were creating these works, they were not only thinking about the service users, but they were also conscious of the effect that artworks would have on the staff. They were conscious that the staff work every day in an incredibly high pressure environment and they wanted the artworks to be as much for them as for the patients. Do you feel that?

SB: I think certainly having the excitement of being involved in a project like this has been uplifting for the team. We have a very dynamic and positive team to begin with, which I think has helped; the Hospital Rooms is possible, because the team was in place to do that. But I think it has created a lot of thought about the potential for future changes, it shows that change is possible, very very feasible, particularly in the current environment of the NHS, which faces increasing pressures. Especially for my nursing colleagues who work really closely with the patients, enduring lots of pressures and increasing demands on their time, it shows a value for them as well, that their working space is important, and I think that's a really incredibly powerful message.

LJW: What do you think about the prospect of more hospitals benefitting from the Hospital Rooms project, if art was brought into more wards around the country?

SB: I think that would be fantastic. It creates a specialness to the ward, but it also really allows the ward to express itself and to become a unique community, and if Hospital Rooms was to do this in different wards, each ward would be a very different unique expression of that community thats inside the ward. It could be really nice to foster that sense, that individuality and that expression of who we all are as people, sharing huge parts of our lives in the ward environment.

LJW: And finally, how was it working with the ever-inspiring Niamh and Tim?

SB: It was very seamless work, the contribution that Niamh and Tim gave to the team, it very much felt like we were working towards common goals despite very different backgrounds. We will certainly miss them, and feel a loss, a sense that some of our team members are moving on. We certainly hope that they do come back and that we continue to stay in touch, because they are incredible and inspiring people.

LJW: Of course, and hopefully they'll be back and contributing in more ways..

SB: Yes yes, thinking about what next!