Tuesday, 29 September 2015



John Exell, one of Centrepieces' longest serving members, describes what the charity has meant to him.

'Buddy-Buddy' by John Exell
I have been with Centrepieces since its creation at the Crayford Mental Health Day Centre.  Most of my life I have been interested in art.  I have been ill with severe mental illness since the age of 19, I am now 66 (2015).  I started to go to the Day Centre when I was unemployed and looking for work, during the recession of the early nineties.  After 5 years of this, and the lack of money, my mental illness returned with a vengeance, and my world caved in on itself.  In their wisdom, my doctors said that I would never work again.  I was 46.  This was in those happy days when people still believed in mental health day centres, those with severe mental illness weren’t expected to work, and recovery meant getting over a serious night’s heavy drinking session.
I visited the Day Centre more often, and took up art and writing more seriously, thinking that I may be able to make it as a writer and/or artist, and anyway, I enjoyed it.  In 1999, Centrepieces was formed.  It started as an odd collection of artists, based at the Crayford Day Centre.  Its formation gave my art more of a focus.  I soon learnt that making it as an artist or writer was extremely difficult, but I liked it, returning to work was out of the question for now, so I kept it as an extended hobby.  I saw it as an aid to my recovery, and, hopefully, to help make me fit for some sort of work again.  I also used art and writing as therapy.  I am now retired, and doing art and writing helps keep my mind and body going, as well as being an enjoyable hobby, and it helps keep senility at bay.  Also I know that others like my work, so I am doing a service to people, and putting something back into society.  

We did various workshops and classes, and did artwork at the Day Centre.  I partly treated the Centre as a studio.  I developed a skill in sculpture, which I practised and also taught others.  Centrepieces gave occupation, structure and meaning to my life.  I often went to the Centre six days a week, doing my artwork.  I also did various voluntary jobs at the Centre.  Centrepieces co-existed with other service users at the Centre, who were not particularly interested in art, but we got on fine together.  The government’s policy to day centres changed, and to keep in line with it, service users were not allowed to treat the centre just as a place to go, they had to do something there, so many users stopped coming.  I also did creative writing; the mental health charity, Survivors’ Poetry, brought out a collection of my poems in book form.  I also taught it at the Centre.  Employed there were psychiatric staff, who were a great help to me.

'Salamanca Skyline' by John Exell
Then we were told that the Day Centre was closing altogether.  We managed to find a new home for Centrepieces, which was a God-send.  It is in the grounds of Hall Place, the local Arts Centre and Museum.  It is idyllic.  It is now solely Centrepieces; the rest of the service users now go to the local MIND charity in Bexleyheath.  But we are now on our own:  we don’t have the financial support of the local mental health authorities.  We have now become a registered charity, and somehow just manage to hold our heads above water.  The change is an immense benefit all round.  The one drawback is that there are no psychiatric staff there, but we all pull together and help each other.  Some of us are key holders - I’m one - who keep the place open.  More artists are joining us, which is very good.  We sculpt, draw, paint and write.  Several of the more able help to run the place.      

'City of Towers' by John Exell
The Lodge, as the place is called, is a true joy.  It is wonderful to wander around the grounds of Hall Place.  They have a river with ducks and geese.  During the summer months they sell delicious ice cream.  It is a joy to sit in the courtyard of the Lodge, with friends.  We have a pet wild robin, who is getting bolder and bolder with us, and more trusting.  I sculpt in the courtyard, teaching others my skill, and also learning from others.  Inside we have a large circular drawing table which we all sit round and draw.  I also teach creative writing there.  

When we were told that the Day Centre was closing, we never dreamed that we would be so lucky as to find this place; now there is a danger of us in taking it all for granted.  I’m now living almost outside the psychiatric system, which is very good.  I did it in my thirties, and it worked, just relying on friends to guide me if necessary.  I hasten to add that I still take my medication.  In all, the move to the Lodge is very beneficial: very beneficial indeed.

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