Interview with Bella Milroy

To celebrate World Mental Health day, we caught up with artist Bella Milroy about good mental health, disabled joy and the beauty of working in a library context.

Through our project at Human Libraries been working with Bella since 2019 first through a short February plant workshop with Sean Roy Parker in Pool Our Resources and second through a larger project called Soft Sanctuary.

Soft Sanctuary brought together artists, library users and librarians and focussed on the idea of a ‘sick day’ time spent in recovery and the permission to do this.

Bella herself is an artist who makes art in many ways, working responsively through mediums of sculpture, drawings, photography, writing and text. Her work explores how we touch and make contact with the world around us, with the hand-held being of particular significance. She makes work about making work (and being disabled) and not being able to make work (and being disabled). She is interested in the duality of every-day existence, and how things can be both beautiful/painful; both interesting/dull. This process-based practice is fundamental to her as a disabled artist, utilising and working with the significant limits and demands of living with a chronic illness, all mixed in with the detritus of domesticity.

Thank you so much for all the inspiration so far Bella!

It’s World Mental Health Day on 10th October – what represents good mental health for you?

BM: I think for me, it is less about what represents “good mental health”, and more about knowing that experiencing your mental health in many different ways and guises, is valid and worth making room for. Society has such an unfortunate view of mental health and mental illness in so many ways; shame, judgment, disregard, etc. Part of these forms how we perceive mental illness and mental health, which can often make us underestimate the impact of this on our lives and the lives of those around us. We have such a rigid, limited reference point for what mental illness looks like, often only ever seeing things in black and white; someone who’s depressed can’t get out of bed and has no capacity to function in any way — the kind of depression you’d often see depicted in film and media. Whilst this is of course a very valid and real experience of depression, it can also appear in lots of other ways that are often more nuanced and harder to recognise. Add shame into the mix, and it’s no wonder that we find it so difficult to recognise our own experiences in this way, and, more importantly, ask for help when we need it most.

We need more visibility of mental health in all its forms, both culturally and in education too. I don’t think this is at all a new concept, of which most people would agree with. But it’s about what we do with that visibility and how we offer real, practical support alongside this that is often missing from the conversation. Raising awareness is one thing, offering meaningful structures for change is something else! So for me, what “good mental health” looks like, is about understanding and valuing the nuances of our mental health, which allows us to validate those experiences, and gives us the tools and resources to better manage our own mental health and the varying ways in which that manifests throughout our lives.

It’s very hard sometimes to drive yourself forward into ‘self-actualisation’ which is basically making things happen for yourself without being directed to do it. Artists do this naturally and a library is a place that supports this. If you don’t know how to start, where is a good place to go from?

BM: This is a great question! I think it goes back to what I referred to earlier, how play can be such a brilliant motivator for learning and creative exchange. And yet we dismiss it. Holding such little value to what play can offer in helping us better understand what it is we’re dealing with at the moment, and who we are in relation to that. It takes practice; practice to stop being concerned with looking silly or like what you’re doing is no good, practice at leaving your ego at the door.…not sure if most artists are as good at that one though! And as I said, it’s something that society does not deem valuable, particularly when contextualised within the capitalistic model, where productivity is valued above all else. And so the library is incredibly important in this way, as it is a space of great safety, a place without judgment or expectations. This is a good place to start, particularly the kind of programmes held there which are run by the Human Libraries team. The format of these works allows for allowing people to engage, play, and connect in ways that offer value to you as a participant, simply by turning up. It is really freeing, and again, always centered on joy and pleasure, which I think are always going to be successful ways of inviting people to join in and seek things out for themselves.

Many people have negative self-talk. As a female disabled artist, I bet the world has really tried to make you have negative self-talk! But you seem so positive and warm — what’s your secret?!

BM: I’m really lucky in that I have a very loving and warm partner and family setup that have always instilled that my experience of disability is valid and important. The way I’ve perceived my disability has changed over the years, and it has taken the support of friends and loved ones in giving me the room for that change to happen, rather than only ever seeing it as one static thing. We have such a negative view of disability in society and so it would be easy for my life to be only ever viewed in this way by those around me. Fortunately, I’ve always been given the space and the autonomy to dictate what my disability means on my own terms, and most people respect this, something that I never take for granted in thinking of many disabled people who live their lives undermined by the opinions of those around them.

I’ve also found great strength in finding my community over the past few years. Finding other disabled people through online communities like Instagram has been totally life-changing, and allowed me to understand my own disability and those of others in so many different ways. I don’t know how I would be getting through pandemic without these friends.

I’ve also been incredibly lucky in my working life with the people I get to work with. So many disabled artists are routinely subjected to the most hideous working experiences and navigating ableism and poor understanding of access needs is unfortunately very much part of the job. I have the best job in the world getting to work with the people of the Human Libraries! Throughout the course of this year in putting this second edition of Soft Sanctuary together, the team has enabled me to carry out the programme in a way that always works on my terms, and never makes me feel like my needs aren’t valid. They are invested in supporting me to make the work happen, as well as supporting all the other artists involved, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express how much that means.

I also just really love my life as a disabled person, and I think that comes across in all the work I make! It’s something that’s really hard to express and articulate — even as I write now. But giving space for disabled joy is really important to how you find meaning and value in your life. It doesn’t discount the difficulties and hardships of living with a disability — of which there are many — but it allows you to celebrate and find worth in a life that is so easily disregarded as worthless. Disabled joy is a powerful thing, one that takes a lot of time and practice to foster, both in yourself and in others. I think that’s why I love being with my disabled friends so much, because it feels like we’re just filling each other up all the time, and it’s the best feeling.

Not sure if I’ve managed to tell you my secret at all — I’m not sure I have one — but I guess I’d say that combating negative self-talk is really hard, particularly as a disabled person. I’m definitely not saying that I never have those thoughts and feelings about myself. If its something you’re struggling with, finding your tribe, finding your community of others who share your story and experience really helps to see the value in disability in all its forms, and I’d say that’s a really great place to start talking to yourself in a kinder way.

If you want to do something little everyday for yourself that might stimulate good mental health what would you suggest?

BM: I always feel like getting clean in some way is really transformative. It’s not always possible, and that is ok, but it definitely helps you feel more comfortable and more in control of your body, however small that control may be. It can be as simple as realizing you could use wet wipes instead of flannels, which really helped me! Whilst that could easily sound a bit grim lol, it is actually a really accessible way of getting me up and about and makes me feel nice. Getting clean really does help my mood, even if it is just as simple as a wet wipe!

Any final thoughts?!

BM: Thanks so much for helping me make Soft Sanctuary online happen! I’m so excited to share what we’ve made so far, particularly in highlighting so many amazing disabled artists that feature in the series. I’m really looking forward to all the ways that this next iteration will unfold over the coming months.