Lino cuts, lampshades, screen prints, oak stools and tea light holders: not so much symptoms of a mental health issue, but at the inspiring Jolt shop in Oswestry in Shropshire, the products of the process of transforming challenging experiences into objects through creativity.
Opened in December 2017, Jolt is the retail outlet of Designs in Mind which offers a safe space for sufferers of mental ill health to express themselves, object-ify (literally) their difficulties, and offer nice-to-haves to “conscious consumerists” looking to give back with their purchases.
It seems necessary given the project’s rural location. Mental health has become a popular talking point and focus of social enterprise in cities – think of Sanctus, the Dragon Café, and the Better Health Bakery in London), but the picture is different in the countryside where rural sufferers face the additional problems of transport and lack of resources.
“Designs In Mind is a well-established studio in Oswestry, working with people referred through the mental health services,” says Jo Watkins who leads Jolt. “It seemed only natural for the studio to develop a retail brand. We wanted to really address people’s expectations of our makers, and show that by producing high quality work and products we can challenge those low expectations.”
According to Watkins, 18.6% of Oswestry’s population (2,901) have a limiting long-term illness, health problem or disability, which constrains their daily activities or work.
However, the quality and beauty of Jolt’s products themselves would easily assuage a desire to dash to Habitat in London or Birmingham for homewares. But while Designs In Mind stress that they are neither an art therapy group nor a counselling hub, the process of making is itself immeasurably valuable in human terms.
“Creating the space for members to be themselves, and escape their life outside is at the core of the studio,” says Watkins. “Plenty of research shows that using your hands and making work is beneficial to your wellbeing, and we see people transformed by being part of the studio. Just walking through the door can be a massive hurdle, but once you are in, it’s warm, welcoming and pretty wonderful.”
Collaborativity is key to the project’s success: “Every design process starts with experimental drawing and printing workshops which lead to work which is refined by our designer lead, Elin Humphreys. Finally we whittle the designs down to a cohesive collection and decide which products to produce. It’s a long process, but a successful way of working: in any designs there could be up to six, seven or eight people’s work.”
The value of participation and human connection in recovery hardly needs restating, but the wider social effect of enterprises such as Jolt shouldn’t be underestimated either. While Jolt has been welcomed in Oswestry’s town centre, Watkins knows that the stigma surrounding mental illness remains. And how better to start challenging it than through creativity?
“It’s important to educate ourselves by talking about our mental health at work, school, at home and with friends,” she says. “It will filter through. Once we as a country can provide for our mental health as we do our physical health, then we might just get somewhere.”
JOLT is at 15 Cross Street, Oswestry, UK. Opening times: Tuesday – Saturday 10am to 4pm.