What do artists, chefs and bartenders have in common? Long hours, pressure to create and tendencies towards excess are some of the links that Alex Fatho discovered in his “Wrestling Demons” project. Artists like Hatch, Ryan Gajda and Iain Macarthur were introduced to leading figures from the hospitality to try to illustrate issues surrounding mental health, and the results were exhibited as part of the “Art in the Age of Now” show in London.
As part of #mtnwokemonth, we connected with Alex to talk over the process of opening up the mental health debate with participants and visitors to the exhibition.
Wrestling Demons brings together professionals from the world of hospitality and artists to create an exhibition drawing attention to mental health in the industry. Did you find that the two groups had a lot in common? Did you encounter similar hopes and fears?
Totally! Chefs, bartenders and artists are all artists in their own right. They invoke a feeling, emotion and memory with colors, flavor and texture. So you can imagine how much fun they had chatting, collaborating and inspiring each other, but also how we all share similar fears, both personally and professionally: everything from anti-social hours to achieve our life-goals, to wearing a mask to hide how we feel because of social stigmas, to the injustices in the world like prejudice, the environment, inequality and egos.
There’s hope in recognizing these fears and truly wanting to do something about them, like creating a better future for ourselves and others, what we should be open about, and what we need to fix in a world that has been painted over so many times it’s turned dark, with all the colour hidden underneath.
‘ It turns my stomach that the education system is reducing arts and creativity even further. ‘
How were the participants’ hopes and dreams represented in the exhibition? How did the reality differ from your expectations?
It’s been represented with color and flavor, where mental health is often seen in shades of gray. By reducing limitations of expression and in standing back to let the teams collaborate, every piece of art I saw is like the best birthday present I got goosebumps. It was emotional in the best way!
There was a therapeutic angle many needed. From participants talking with another creative human to the people who came to see the exhibition who truly needed to chat about mental health. My role was to bring that all together as a project and to tell a story with their amazing art, both in person, but also with every room that flows into the next with paint, pens, cans and installations.
Each room has become a topical chapter and is often interactive. Visitors played a massive part in the exhibition. From “defacing” a room I left graffiti cans in, to “chalk to me” blackboard walls, and even pens to write your own person hell in “Hell’s Den.”
I have no regrets. Nothing I’d change, and I think everything happened for a reason to fall into place.
‘There’s hope in recognizing these fears and truly wanting to do something about them, like creating a better future for ourselves and others, what we should be open about, and what we need to fix in a world that has been painted over so many times it’s turned dark, with all the colour hidden underneath.’
The hospitality industry is known as being a tough place to work, with long hours, hot tempers and a regimented hierarchy amongst the ranks. A bit like the graffiti scene, actually. Do you think it is hard for people from sectors like these to let down their guard?
I think you make a pretty interesting point, and that is ego and exclusion. I think that they are key elements that fuck shit up in any industry and is doing a lot of harm. I mentioned the interactive features of the exhibition: well, each day I’ve seen people draw over each other with hostile intent, slander people, leave their social handles and basically say “Me, ME, me, mE.”
Artist Steve Vinall, Chef Sally Abe and Bartender Louie Campbell’s piece is inspired by the suffragettes and how voices can inspire others over ego. Artist Nic Mac, Chef Elizabeth Haigh and Bartender Chris Dennis’s piece is about how prejudice against someone in any form can collect like a well till they over-flow and drown them in hate. Both pieces come up a lot in conversation with visitors and really resonate, because there are too many people out there that believe the human canvas should be the same. Art tells us a very different story and we should look at people with just as much appreciation.
What stigma do you consider exists in the art world and the hospitality industry regarding mental health?
It’s the elephant in the room for everyone, not just these industries. People generally fear talking about their feelings, maybe because they will be analyzed, dissected and disregarded. So we wear a mask to hide who we are.
A prominent feature of a couple of the pieces on the project from artists Simon Mitchell and Craig Imrie. The sad fact is that many people worry they will lose their jobs or not go far because of this ridiculous stigma. Ryan Gajda’s piece is about going through hell at times throughout our lives and how no matter what we collect from our experiences, it defines us and helps us keep going.
The scary thing is how this stigma plays out. Chefs hide everything till it boils over, bartenders become broken stage actors, and artists fall into a paint pot of addiction because society excuses stimulants to make them more creative.
Harsh? Generalised? Fair? It truly breaks my heart to see what I see every day, in every way, in every industry because of the stigma that exists and is the silent killer.
Do you think that art can be cathartic? By being free to create, we can express pent up or repressed emotions?
Very much so. I caught someone with a graffiti can spraying over a door at the exhibition. She looked at me like she’d been busted. Her words were, “I’ve never picked up a can before.” I wasn’t going to mess with that and evidently people need art to express with creative intent or otherwise. It turns my stomach that the education system is reducing arts and creativity even further.
Every single person on this project has demonstrated the power of art to express themselves and inspire others. With more artistic, relatable expressions we can truly begin to offer confidence and help others, whether it’s art, food and cocktails, or anything else for that matter that helps what we can’t express easily with words.
Now that your participants are going back to work in kitchens, pubs or wherever, do you think that they will be able to find the time to keep creating? What artistic outlets can you recommend for people without much free time?
Hospitality is so short staffed across the board right now that many are doing 100 hour weeks. I worry they will have any time for themselves, but hospitality creates atmosphere, amazing food, drinks and unity. We don’t give them enough credit for what they create every day beyond their own well-being.
Maaaaan, so what does one recommend when facing off against time without sounding wishy washy? I write notes on my phone whenever anything creative comes into my head for when I do have time to bring it to life. When I have a strong idea, then I have to visualize it. I have to make it exist. I’m probably stubborn and annoying like that, but I don’t want to live in a world with impossibilities. Gene Wilder truly is a great Willy Wonka inspiration. Finding inspiration in everything around you and experiencing shit will give you all the hunger you need to find time, but also to bring it into everything you do too. You’ve only got to look at a great plate of food or banging cocktail to see or taste what I mean.
Self-destructive behaviour like alcoholism is quite common amongst chefs and graffiti writers, in fact it is celebrated and even glamourized through stories and social media. At what point do you think that people should be concerned about a friend that drinks a lot? How are these problems best approached?
I used to joke about my Gary Oldman/Dracula, rock & roll immortality coming from being preserved in alcohol. I’m now 40 and I regret saying that like it was something to be proud of. Excessive anything is a coping mechanism. Many hide excess very well and it’s not often easy to talk about for either side.
Listening to the signs, offering support, patience and giving confidence is key. But ultimately it takes real courage for the individual to recognise they have a problem to want to do something about it. It’s also incredibly easy to be defeatist and give in to addiction. If we do falter, reassure someone where they may feel guilt. It may sound odd, but when I started asking myself what my superpower and kryptonite was, I started seeing why I was self-destructive and how both were intrinsically linked. A lot was because I feared what I wanted to create maybe wouldn’t exist. That has always made me drink. That is also what stops things from existing too.