Learning about Chili studios with Bob Malpiedi

This picture depicts three members of Chili Studios (including Bob Malpiedi, doing the interview) inside of the Chili Studios building. They are smiling.


Margaux: How and why was Chili Studios created?

Bob: From a personal perspective, I had left university and doing a sculpture degree wasn’t the best for finding a job [so I] did some volunteering. One of my placements was in a mental health hospital, St. Nicholas’. I volunteered in the art room for patients on the ward. After a short period of time, they offered me the job when the person who was running [it] moved on. That was my first experience of working in that environment, supporting people to be creative.

“I loved it because it created an opportunity for people to find this state of flow, play, be creative [and] make connections with others.”

After four years working there, I went on to other things. During my time as a community worker, one of my roles was setting up projects. I was always keen on setting up a purpose-built service like this. Around the same time, there was a guy called Peter Thompson doing a feasibility study on setting up an art studio for people with mental health issues. He went around loads of people, interviewed them – he interviewed me about it – and I gave my perspective. He formed a group together and set up a company. At that point, they got a bit of money, and brought me to be a development worker. So I was brought in before Chili Studios existed as a thing. When I came into that post, they had ideas and plans about what they wanted to do. Peter had been promised quite a big chunk of money to renovate a building in the centre of Newcastle and make it into an art studio with artist studios attached to it, and those professional artists would then pay for their studio rent by providing sessions.

After about a year in that job, the landlord of the building decided he didn’t want [the project] anymore. So we looked at loads of venues. The Council wasn’t happy with us spending a big chunk of money on a place so it dissipated. What it did was provide an opportunity to do stuff from the bottom up. During the first year of my being in post, I was running lots of little workshops in drop-in centres so I started to build a community of people who were interested in what we were planning. So I thought, I’ll start off and find a venue and I found a place […]. We started one day a week delivering sessions and I spent time bringing in more money, developing the sessions, doing it for more days and it has gradually grown and become what it is now. 

We’ve moved within this building four times into different spaces and we’ve settled here for about 12 years. It has evolved as a project mainly due to the membership, how they have directed us and by the various staff that we’ve had over the years. The community has grown and now we’ve worked with well over 1,500 different people over the years. We’ve probably got around 850-900 still on record. We find that some people sign up as members, attend for a few months and maybe don’t come in for a while and after about three years come back in. We do hold on to our records for a few years just in case. We brought in a membership fee about 12-15 years ago. It is now about £15 per month. That money helps to plug little financial gaps that we need. The majority of the money comes from charitable grants that I source. We do get some money from sales and various other things. That money pays for staff, for the freelance artists and now also for our therapeutic enablers who are individuals who attended the studios as members, progressed on to do peer volunteering, developed skills and then started doing paid work for us. Some of them have even gone into core member staff roles in the past. It helps to ensure that we are utilising people with lived experience because they are the experts. If you’ve had mental health issues then you are more likely to understand the difficulties and stigmas that people encounter.

We are an art service but I don’t see ourselves as that. I see ourselves as a health-based service. I think the arts world is very different.  Art is often theorised and less about the play and state of flow. It becomes quite serious. And for me, Chili Studios is about people just enjoying it, finding connections, being in the space, being mindful at times. 

“The community creates what it is which has got to be the most important aspect.”

Margaux: You said you have fundraised before, is that still the main part of your role in Chili Studios?

Bob: It is. When I started off, I was doing the vast majority of the delivery [of workshops] and there wasn’t as much money to bring in but now, […] my time has developed in bringing in the funding, managing the finances and ensuring that there is a degree of management in place. 

About 14 months ago, we restructured. With me going part-time, I thought I needed to elevate the other staff and responsibilities to negate me [this]. So we are now four leads. I am in strategy and development, dealing with fundraising, direction of travel, reporting back to funders, being involved in networks. Carole [Hall] is very much supporting the database, HR (Human Resources) admin. She is involved in a lot of things that are going on. Jo [Burke] is really focused on everything to do with the creative programme and managing the freelancers and the way they engage. And then we’ve got Sarah [Hilditch] who is more about mental health and the well-being aspect as well as supporting the membership to develop some peer volunteer roles.

Margaux: Mental health is a fundamental part of your organisation. What kind of challenges do you have to deal with?

Bob: Obviously, working in mental health, you can get people who can be quite challenging. You can get people who demand things to be different. […] A big part of the reason why we’ve got two spaces was that one should be with music playing and loud chats and the other should be more quiet because some people prefer stillness and others prefer chattering going on. This is one example of how we kind of separate introverts and extroverts. [Another example is in our music workshops] where, in the morning, Ziad [Jabero], our musician, works one-to-one on music projects. In the afternoon, we’ve got a jam session which is kind of like karaoke with a lot of singing going on. Everyone in that group is quite open, loud and into being part of a community while the people in the morning are often more into doing music production and more focused on their work. We try to cater to those differences. 

There are challenges and we navigate each challenge as fairly as we can with an understanding of the background. Sometimes people have bad days, sometimes people have different value systems, cultural aspects come into play. 

Margaux: Your space feels incredibly welcoming, warm and colourful from the moment you step inside. How do you create such a space, what is your approach to creating it and why is that so important? 

Bob: It’s difficult to distil it into words.

“Fundamentally, it is about values of respect, empathy, mutual understanding and fun.”

I think fun is a huge part of it. We try to maintain a context of mutual respect and support. Sometimes people say things that are inappropriate and it’s about understanding whether they have the right intentions, the right meanings. That kind of space is carefully managed but not over-managed. It’s allowing a bit of freedom and uniqueness, trying to find ways to bridge the differences. 

It’s a whole combination of things [as well]. The colours on the wall, the plants on the table, the music playing, laughter in the room, a cup of tea on the go. That all does it. 

Margaux: What does ‘solidarity’ mean to you and to Chili Studios?

Bob: Quite often solidarity requires something to be together against. There’s the term ‘outsider art’ which is often [used] for people with mental health issues creating art and seeing themselves as not being part of mainstream society. We start off with a group of people who don’t feel like they fit into what society norms are. For example, we have a lot of neurodiverse people here. A few of our exhibitions have played on that theme like ‘Never Normal’.

“Solidarity is more likely to emerge if there is a shared sense of injustice or inequality.”

That’s how I perceive it. We have a group of people who are different and feel like the society that they live in isn’t quite geared to them and the issues they have to deal with and that creates automatic solidarity. 

We also do all kinds of things to bring a community together; performances, workshops, exhibitions, membership meetings. I think that helps create solidarity as well. It’s about people together against or to improve something. Not against in a negative way but it’s mostly about trying to improve a common problem. 

Margaux: Why do you ask people to have a referral? 

Bob: [The question is], as a service like we are, how do we focus on supporting the most in need? Half of the people who come here are referred from support workers, psychiatric nurses, psychiatrists, social workers. With their referrals, we have information about them such as risk assessments which can be very helpful. It is a good standard approach in mental health organisations. 

But we also recognise that some individuals are not into the system. So when they come to us, we tell them that they can self-refer. […] What we ask is that, next time they visit their GP, [they] get them to sign the form. That way, the primary care is aware of the individual having wellbeing issues. It is a wellbeing service. 

Margaux: The organisation is turning 20 this year, looking back, what advice would you give your younger self when it started? 

Bob: There are trials and tribulations along the way. I think the stress was particular for me. I had the weight of responsibilities on my shoulders with the finances and ensuring that we’re getting it. Some of the anxiety that it causes for me is kind of what I need to get stuff done. There was motivation in the fact that I could let people and the organisation down if I didn’t do the work. I need that stress but I guess I would tell my younger self that it would be okay in the end because it has been. 

I would [also] probably say breathe and don’t be too reactive. Find a healthy way to let the tension dissipate. I think I’m a lot more chill than I used to be. I tend to be quite reactionary and some people can be quite clever at pushing your buttons. Breathe Bob, breathe.

Margaux: What are your hopes for the future?
Bob: I have never been an empire builder, I never wanted Chili Studios to get much bigger. I think what makes it nice is to keep it a small community. I would like to ensure that it has security and maybe leave a legacy of some long-term funding. In the future I’d like to have someone step into my shoes who could maybe have more skills owed to fundraising than mine are and could help a lot more. I think I’d just like to see it carry on.