Preview: Madlove

In the town once labelled the country’s suicide capital an artist is taking over a disused shop with exhibitions and performances aimed at supporting people’s mental health

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For the whole of November, the old Argos store on Church Street in St Helens will be a hub of creativity and kindness. The empty shop has been reimagined as a welcoming and accessible space, with artworks and events but most importantly a big kitchen table and free tea where people can chat or just find a moment’s respite from the daily grind.

Madlove is the theme of this year’s Take Over, an annual free arts festival organised by Heart of Glass, and mental health is the urgent theme in a town that has higher than national average suicide rates and was last year labelled the suicide capital of England and Wales.

“Mental health is a theme we can all relate to,” says co-curator James Leadbitter – AKA Vacuum Cleaner, a street art moniker that stuck – an activist artist who has exposed his own struggles with mental health in his raw and unflinching artworks. “We thought about how an artist would take over the town but instead of having art shows across several sites, we’ve drawn it into one space to literally as well as metaphorically bring people together.”

A mix of 13 local, national and international artists linked by their social and environmental concerns, but also their own mental health experiences, are taking part.

“The idea behind Madlove is to challenge loneliness and explore what happens when there’s nowhere to go,” says Leadbitter. “It’s particularly sore for people living in a town like St Helens that has lost not only its Argos, but also the M&S next door, and other familiar high street stores. So the empty shop was chosen as a venue because we wanted somewhere that people knew and felt the loss of, and where we could try to heal divisions and come back together as a community.”

There’s a new blend of tea from Clockface and the art includes paintings by a bipolar Indonesian artist and the Mr Men re-imagined from a mental health perspective. Events include a stand-up comedian who has had no choice but to work her Tourette’s syndrome into her act, and den building for grownups. Local people will be greeters and “explainers”.

“It’s a space to come together if you are struggling with your mental health or know someone who is, or you are trying to reconnect,” says Leadbitter. “We’ve worked hard to find artists who are really good at making those conversations go deeper, with no sense of shame, no stigma and no discrimination. The main thing is to make it work as a social space where people feel they can pop in and chat.”

Leadbitter, who grew up in Burnley, has worked with mental health patients at Great Ormond Street Hospital and documented his own mental illness in Mental, an artwork that juxtaposes his experiences with his health and police records. In a way Madlove is an alternative asylum where people and not professionals are the experts because of their lived experience.

At a performance of Mental in St Helens a few years back Leadbitter noticed three women at the back who looked a little out of place. “At the end they came up to me and said they wanted to thank me. It turned out they had recently lost their son and brother to suicide. They felt it was important for people to acknowledge and share the pain and grief of suicide more openly. If I can do a little of this at Madlove I will be happy,” he says.

Madlove runs 1-30 November, 11am-6pm, Tuesday-Saturday, at the old Argos store, Unit 2, Hardshaw Centre, Church Street, St Helens (heartofglass.org.uk) 

Photo: Madlove curators Emily Gee, Mary Osborn and James Leadbitter (AKA Vacuum Cleaner)

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