Interview with The National Brain Appeal

Interview with The National Brain Appeal

July 27, 2020

The National Brain Appeal is the charity dedicated to improving the outcome and quality of life for the one in six people affected by a neurological condition. Alongside funding pioneering research and providing access to the best technology for expert diagnosis and treatment, the charity also runs an annual art fundraising campaign, A Letter in Mind. Every year, members of the public from a range of disciplines are invited to create an artwork on an envelope; all of these artworks are then priced identically at £85 and sold anonymously in an exhibition at the Oxo Tower, London.

In recent years, artists including Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry, Antony Gormley and Olafur Eliasson have donated works. Head to the bottom of this article to read some quotes first-hand from artists and participants who have loved getting involved with A Letter in Mind in previous years!

We are thrilled to have The National Brain Appeal on board with us for this year's Big Green Draw Festival! We were really looking forward to hearing a bit more about the A Letter in Mind event, which will be part of their Big Draw Festival programme for 2020. We caught up with Eva Tait, curator of A Letter in Mind, to understand more about the vital work of The National Brain Appeal, some of their brilliant fundraising initiatives, and ways in which we all can support and get involved.

Matilda Barratt in conversation with Eva Tait from The National Brain Appeal and curator of A Letter in Mind.

Hi Eva! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Could you start by telling us about The National Brain Appeal and the work that you do?

The National Brain Appeal is the charity dedicated to raising vital funds for The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (NHNN), and the UCL Institute of Neurology, together known as Queen Square. Our vision is to improve the outcome and quality of life for the one in six people affected by a neurological condition.

Queen Square is the largest clinical neuroscience provider in the UK, and assesses those with the most complex and difficult disorders from across the country; funding provides pioneering research, access to the best technology for expert diagnosis, treatment, and training for tomorrow’s clinicians. Like all NHS hospitals, staff at The National Hospital have been working under enormous pressure over the last few months, responding to the Covid-19 crisis. 

[A Letter in Mind curator Eva Tait (right) with National Brain Appeal chief executive Theresa Dauncey (left)]

And what is your role within the charity? 

I’ve been the Curator of the ‘A Letter in Mind’ series of art exhibitions since 2014 and have been delighted to see the exhibitions grow over the years to include more than 1,000 artists, 1,500 artworks and over £100,000 raised which is testament to all the artists, visitors and supporters involved. 

Last year I joined the charity as Major Appeals Manager. In this role, I focus on our two capital appeals; raising £3.5m-£7m to create the world’s first centre of excellence for rare and early onset dementias that will concentrate on support, education, training and research; and on our commitment to raise £7m towards the creation of a state-of-the-art dedicated research hospital, the Clinical Neurosciences Centre, where ground-breaking neurological disease research will take place using shared core facilities including genetics, stem cells, gene therapy and advanced imaging (MRI scanning) facilities to support the translation of science into benefits to patients. The centre will be a world-class research facility for dementia, stroke, muscle and nerve disorders, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and many others. 

For the past 7 years The National Brain Appeal has run an annual art fundraiser, ‘A Letter in Mind’ - and this year it is part of The Big Draw Festival! We’d love to hear more about the fundraiser. How did it first come about, and how does the money raised help people? 

Seven years ago, I was invited to create an art fundraising campaign for The National Brain Appeal that raised awareness of the work of the charity and the neurological conditions that are treated and researched at the hospital. Apart from its literal translation, A Letter in Mind also refers to the envelope that patients carry with them from appointment to appointment within the hospital system. This led us to ask artists to create their work on an envelope. 

The money raised from the exhibitions goes directly to fund projects at The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery and to where the funding need is greatest at the time. An estimated 16.5 million people in England are affected by neurological diseases so awareness raising is also crucial to funding innovative and ground-breaking projects in the future. 

[Top Left: Chris Riddell, A Letter in Mind 2018. Top Right: Ishbel Myerscough, A Letter in Mind 2019]

[Bottom Left: Grayson Perry, A Letter in Mind 2017. Bottom Right: Mark Entwisle, A Letter in Mind 2019]

What is it that makes the event so special? 

The community that comes together for the exhibition is exceptionally loyal to and supportive of The National Hospital as well as the exhibition itself. Almost everyone who contributes has a family member or friend affected by a neurological condition. Some of the artists involved have first-hand experience and have been encouraged to make art again through their involvement in A Letter in Mind when they had previously thought that they were unable to do so, due to the lasting effects of stroke or other conditions. 

Artists have recounted just how much they have enjoyed expressing themselves to raise awareness for these conditions but also that the inclusive nature of the exhibition appeals to them and that their work will be sitting alongside well-known names from diverse disciplines; architects, illustrators, theatre designers, fashion designers, hospital staff, patients and actors. 

In recent years Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry, Antony Gormley, Olafur Eliasson, Marc Dion and David Shrigley have donated artworks, as have Jo Brand, Emilia Fox, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sophie Thompson, Kevin Eldon and Terry Hall. 

All the artworks are sold anonymously and we include almost every entry so it’s very democratic. Of course, when the names are revealed at the end of the exhibition, it must be very exciting to realise that you have acquired a famous artist’s work for £85! 

I work with a very dedicated team at the charity and on A Letter in Mind and we all feel that it’s necessary to spend time with the works (last year there were more than 380!), which is why we are trying so hard to make the gallery exhibition safe to open to the public and not just have an online exhibition. There is nothing like experiencing art in the flesh. 

We will have a pre-viewing day with timed appointments this year rather than a traditional evening Private View and all buying will take place online to be as safe as possible.

Each year you have a different theme for A Letter in Mind, and this year’s theme feels particularly appropriate for the times - although I understand it was decided prior to the coronavirus pandemic! Could you tell our readers a bit more about the chosen theme for 2020? 

Each year, we choose the theme to make the exhibition accessible and inclusive for all our contributors whether they are creative in their professional lives or not. 

Our theme this year, ’Everyday Things’, was chosen in the months before coronavirus affected all our lives but of course we are now so much more focused on our immediate surroundings. I had been thinking about the importance of ritual and the comfort that we take from items used or seen on an everyday basis. If we are ill or away from home for any reason, it’s often these ‘things’ we are glad to see again. 

I really believe in enjoying the ‘everyday’ aspects of our lives, of the importance of design in the objects and architecture that surround us. So many artists have been inspired by the memories and personal histories imbued in objects in their everyday, often choosing those objects as inspiration for some of their greatest works. We hope our artists will find inspiration in their daily life; a walk or favourite view or perhaps aspects of normal life that they miss! 

[The Silver Sketchers, a group of people from Cardiff who live with brain injuries, have taken part in A Letter in Mind since 2018.]

I understand that you are an artist yourself! At The Big Draw we promote the role of drawing and mark-making as tools for communication and expression; does drawing play an important role in your life and work? And have you ever submitted your own artwork for A Letter in Mind? 

Drawing is one of our first modes of expression, a natural instinct. At school I was very lucky to encounter the Royal Academy Outreach team with whom I made my first life drawings, which were then shown at the Royal Academy in London. This experience opened up what making drawings was for me – loose and immediate, the process really freed me from the constraints of art at school. 

Having said that, I am a passionate advocate for more drawing in schools! Later, I studied at Chelsea School of Art and the Slade School of Art where drawing with colour was incredibly important to my work and I used all sorts of materials to ‘draw’ with, such as silk, plasticine and even sweets! I also drew from life in collections such as the Grant Museum of Zoology and used printmaking to explore other ways of drawing. I worked for galleries for over 15 years and loved visiting artists’ studios as I was often given ‘sneak peeks’ into their sketchbooks and preparatory drawings. I was particularly struck by the drawings of Joseph Beuys, Ellsworth Kelly’s plant drawings and Richard Long’s. I admire many contemporary artists whose practice explores drawing such as Felicity Warbrick, Georgia Moors, Ishbel Myerscough, Chantal Joffe and Chris Riddell (many of whom are taking part this year). I’ve submitted nine works for A Letter in Mind and am delighted that five of those have sold. 

Who can take part in A Letter in Mind? Why should people get involved? 

Everyone can get involved! You are supporting the NHS and advancement into the research of neurological conditions but most of all we hope you enjoy being a part of a very unique group of exhibitions where your work is hugely valued by visitor, patient, buyer and peer alike. This is an art ‘leveller’ where we all show work on the same playing field. With The Big Draw behind us I think this year will be very special. 

[Left: Antony Gormley, A Letter in Mind 2018. Top Right: Olafur Eliasson, A Letter in Mind 2019. Bottom Right: Tracey Emin, A Letter in Mind 2019.]

Finally, what are some of the other ways in which people can get involved and support The National Brain Appeal? 

We have sporting challenges, carol concerts, gala evenings, lectures and quizzes to name a few and of course you can create your own event and we’ll support you in any way we can. We would love to see a sketchathon! 

To launch our latest Emergency Covid Appeal we held #BrainAppealStoryTime where famous actors read their favourite stories on our YouTube channel.

Watch out for our upcoming Brain Food recipes! 

It is also incredibly helpful for us if you can spread the word of the amazing work undertaken at Queen Square so please share the callout for A Letter in Mind using the hashtags #ALIM20 #EverydayThings and follow us on Instagram @brain_appeal, Twitter @brainappeal, and Facebook @TheNationalBrainAppeal.

If you would like to enter A Letter in Mind, please register here. Deadline for entries is 11 September.

Thank you Eva!

If you were inspired by this interview with Eva and would like to find out more about The National Brain Appeal, head to their website here.

If you want to take part in A Letter in Mindyou can register here. Deadline for entries is 11 September 2020.

Participants' Quotes

"Brains and how they function are the last Wild West. There is still so much to learn, know and understand. This is why supporting The National Brain Appeal means so much to me.”

- Chantal Joffe, artist & Royal Academician.

"I love the idea of having something precious created on a throwaway thing like an envelope for just £85... We always doodled on envelopes as children... When we were on the bus [my mother] would give us one out of her bag for us to draw on. I still have them in my handbag for the same reason. When we cleared out mum’s house we found so many of her drawings on envelopes."

Ishbel Myerscough, painter & BP Portrait Award Winner.

“I was delighted to take part. I have direct experience of what The National Hospital can do for patients. I feel so grateful for how they helped me and also for everything they, and all NHS staff, have been doing to help patients during the Covid-19 crisis."

Mark Entwisle, artist & portrait painter.

 “I love the simplicity of having an envelope and a theme... There’s something about telling a story around an envelope, I sometimes put stamps on mine. It is completely up to the artist and how they respond. It is a little bit of playful freedom, relaxed and experimental.”

Polly Dunbar, author & illustrator.

“The National Brain Appeal as a charity resonates with me. I make a living out of ideas. We often take creativity, ideas and brain power for granted... Drawing and designing on envelopes is such an everyday thing. With A Letter in Mind you can turn it into something more interesting and magical."

Tim Hopgood, picture book author and illustrator.

"I have taken part since 2017 and I look forward to it every year. I enjoy the creative buzz it gives me and the unfettered moments of release. It makes me relax."

Laurie Chetwood, architect, founder & chairman of Chetwoods.

“This year’s theme, ‘Everyday Things’, is very relevant to what we are all going through now with our experiences of lockdown and adjusting to new ways of working and living. I think we are all noticing things differently and from my perspective it is good to see that the value of nature and green spaces is something people have become much more aware of.”

Andrew Grant, landscape architect, founder & director of Grant Associates.

Registrations are now open for The Big Draw Festival 2020: A Climate of Change! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.