The picturesque town of Sant Boi in Spain, 20 kilometers from Barcelona, is surrounded by the beautiful mountains of the Parque forestal del Montbaig nature reserve.
But other than its views, the town is famous for two things: its rich artistic heritage and the large mental health hospital at the heart of the town.
The hospital was founded in 1855, and its long history continues to shape how people view the area.
“When you’re outside of Sant Boi, for example Barcelona, and the people ask, ‘where are you from?’ and you say ‘from Sant Boi,’ they say, ‘Oh, the town of the loonies.’ This is what we want to change,” local artist Dani Sánchez told CNN.
Nien Boots, who works in Sant Boi, described local interactions between residents and patients that give rise to both “funny situations or uncomfortable ones.”
He gives the example of one of patient who regularly tries to seduce girls, leading to some discomfort.
“Other residents are in need of social interaction. They will sit down with you at the terrace or try to talk with you on the street,” he said. “Everybody gets a bit lonely sometimes.”
Taboos around mental health persist, but for some people in Sant Boi, like Sánchez, the presence of the hospital is simply a part of daily life.
“It’s really common to see a person with mental health issues wandering around the neighborhood,” he said. It’s also a deeply personal issue to him; two of Sánchez’s family members have spent time in Sant Boi’s health care center.
In an effort to bring the town together, 40 young artists from across Europe joined forces at the beginning of July to create a mural to challenge local attitudes around mental health. The project, led by Boots, brought together a number of local organizations, including Torrent d’ART, a group that uses art and culture as a tool to fight prejudice.
Connections through art
Art in Sant Boi is intimately connected to the presence of the mental health institution.
According to local legend, renowned architect Antoni Gaudí worked on the pieces of modern art on display in the garden of Sant Joan De Déu Healthcare Park, which encompasses the mental health hospital.
Before the installations were added, between 1903 and 1912, the hospital held bricklaying workshops, and patients participated in the extension and maintenance work that was carried out soon after, said José Luis Argudo Lara, director of assistance programs at the health care center.
But in recent years, a wall separating the hospital from the rest of the community began to degrade and was covered with unattractive graffiti.
The wall was “in awful condition,” Sant Boi resident Alejandro Gil said. “I felt really bad when I saw the wall so full of dirt.”
The new mural aimed to revamp the wall whilst challenging taboos around mental health. Boots invited 10 young people from Norway, the United Kingdom and Sweden to work with 10 young locals from Sant Boi and they were asked to think about the worst image they could choose to paint on the hospital wall – to initiate and open up a frank discussion on mental health taboos.
After a tense series of conversations, the participants settled upon the theme of carpets. Sánchez told CNN, “We all agreed on a final idea based on the rugs theme, where a part of the rug leans out on one side of the wall, while the other half comes out onto the other side. So this idea poses a question, a sort of enigma, and invites the neighbours to walk into the hospital.”
Residents of the health care center also played large roles in both the design and construction of the mural. “It was really lovely to see how everybody blended in,” said Boots.
Local resident Gil explained that the new mural makes him feel happy, “Now, when I come and see the wall properly painted, it’s like walking down the Passeig de Gràcia,” he said – one of Barcelona’s most elegant avenues.
Welcoming people in
In 2010, the hospital joined forces with a local general hospital, and officials decided to include the care of the elderly as well as people in the criminal justice system and those dealing with grief.
During this restructuring, the hospital opened the parks of the health care center to the public as the new mural is hoped to encourage people to “enter and have a look.”
Local artist, Juan Gurira believes the collaborative process helped establish a better relationship between people who live in the hospital and people who live in the rest of Sant Boi.”Inside, is what people really should see. Here in the street you only see the wall, behind it is the reality,” he said.
But the invitation goes both ways, with residents of the center also invited to enter the town.
When people “go out for a walk, they’ll remember this day,” said Sanchez. “It’s going to influence their lives.”