The do-it-yourself creative community where art overcomes mental distress. 

The CoolTan charity, which began life in a former factory in south London, helps more than 2,000 people each year to address personal problems through self-expression.

CoolTan Arts has something of the Tardis about it. You take the lift to the third floor, knock on a nothingy door, pass through a modest entrance and find yourself in a hall that looks like an airport lounge – albeit one that’s seen better days. Every time you think you’ve run out of space, you find more. So in one room people are painting, in another they’re cooking, here they’re exercising, there they’re making films.

In a tiny kitchen to the side, volunteers, teachers and participants huddle together, and it’s impossible to distinguish between them. Not surprising, really, because participants often become tutors and tutors often become teachers. CoolTan’s USP is that it is a charity run by and for people with mental distress.

Balloons are released to mark the start of CoolTan’s ‘Largactyl shuffle’, a monthly history walk around south London. Photograph: Emma Thatcher

Balloons are released to mark the start of CoolTan’s ‘Largactyl shuffle’, a monthly history walk around south London. Photograph: Emma Thatcher









It was established as a DIY creative community space in 1990 by Michelle Baharier and her artist friends. They had all suffered mental health problems and realised that the arts could be wonderful therapy – for themselves and others. CoolTan began life in the sun lotion factory of the same name in Brixton, south London.

Almost 25 years on, CoolTan has 2,000-plus participants a year (it doesn’t like the word clients – too officious) and 250 volunteers. Demand for its services has increased since the recession. Many day centres have closed down, and CoolTan itself has had its funding cut. Only around 2% of participants arrive with a personal budget (ie complete with funding). So it’s left to CoolTan – one of nine mental health charities supported by the Guardian and Observer’s Christmas charity appeal 2014 – to raise funds for everybody else who attends.

What would they do with more money? Baharier, who is now chief executive, doesn’t know where to start: more teachers, more hours (at the moment it’s only open from Tuesday to Friday, and closes at 6pm), more classes, more everything. Then there’s the centre, which is now based on Walworth Road, Elephant and Castle. It’s hardly luxurious – they’ve only had an indoor toilet for two years.

The kitchen is getting more and more crammed as participants join in to pay testimony. Some have severe mental health problems, some moderate. Some like to talk about them, some don’t. Some hold down jobs, most don’t. Hatty is a member of the creative writing class. She’s an intense, quietly spoken woman with a kind smile. She loves the fact that she can be open about her struggles here. “It’s rare to have a place you can come to and not feel it’s a hindrance or something you have to hide.

Sebastian, who lectures in social policy, agrees. He says in many day centres you get told off if you mention your problems. “If I suddenly started talking about OCD or multiple personality disorder, the staff would jump on you.

Liam, a member of the creative writing class with Sebastian, introduces himself before explaining why he finds CoolTan liberating. “My name is Liam Kirk, as is in Captain James T Kirk. So many topics are excluded at other centres. You’ll actually be told off if you start telling jokes.

Jokes are important here. If you can’t have a laugh at your own expense, Liam says, what hope is there? But, he adds, the work is also important. “I’m trying to write the British follow-up to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He smiles. “I didn’t find the subject – the subject found me.

What if you’re not creative? “We’ll put you on reception,” Baharier says, “then over time you’ll work out what else you want to do.” A volunteer walks in to make an announcement. “Does anybody else want to do the exercise workshop with Mr Derek Tickle? Great guy, great name.” Most people stay to have their say.

Tony talks about the importance of the self-advocacy classes – learning how to make complaints and stick up for yourself. Zack enjoys the stimulating environment. “At a lot of drop-ins there were no activities. You just watched TV, and there was nothing to improve your brain function.”

Saffron, a talented photographer with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), was a recluse before coming here. “It’s the only place I feel comfortable. Coming here has enabled me to do my art work again, which I was doing when I gave up university 13 years ago.” She says the great thing about CoolTan is the solidarity and tolerance of difference. “Sometimes I don’t want to have a wash because I don’t want to trigger my BDD, but I can come here and look a bit untidy and no one would bat an eyelid. In the outside world people make comments. They say am I on heroin because of the way I look.

Julian, who makes Vorticist paintings and likes to talk, butts in, but nobody minds. He’s well known and loved at CoolTan. “Ooh, it’s been wonderful,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed making an exhibition of myself.

Another announcement. “We’re about to start a workshop activity regarding mental heath and cooking. If anybody would like to do it you’re more than welcome.”

Activities never stop. We’ve not even mentioned the Largactyl shuffle yet – the monthly historic walk they do around south London. Why Largactyl? The room erupts with laughter. “Largactyl is an anti-psychotic drug,” says Baharier, whose hair is a dazzling palette of silvers, golds, greens and pinks. “It’s part of reclaiming words and educating people about the effects of the drugs. They don’t realise that when they meet you they’re actually meeting a drug a lot of the time because if you’re dribbling or can’t walk far or you’ve blown up like a balloon it might actually be these drugs. And it’s really important to see past the drugs.”

Then there’s the poetry reading to music provided by the South Bank Sinfonia, the drumming classes, the tea towel and bag making, the flashmob at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the online magazine and so much more.

We’ll do anything we’ve got a volunteer for or funding for,” Baharier says.

Ali, who has autism, has been waiting an age to talk. He promises he’ll be brief, but wants to make an important point. “It’s beautiful,” he says. “Beautiful is the only word for this place.


The above article originally published on the Guardian website, 5th Dec 2014.