Jan Rothuizen’s Mood Drawings: Illustrating Manchester’s Mental Health Across the Metropolis


Natasha Sutton-Williams reviews the work of Dutch visual artist Jan Rothuizen commissioned by SICK! Festival for Mindscapes running across the city of Manchester from 19 April – 16 May.

Mindscapes is a program of work that seeks to explore how our mental health is affected by the world around us and how these external elements shape the way we feel about our lives, in both positive and negative ways. For Mindscapes, Jan Rothuizen has created Mood Drawings, a series of five intricate black and white line drawing posters, which detail the mental health of Manchester’s inhabitants in multiple districts of the city.

photo of a white man looking at a poster displayed on a metro platform

Mood-Drawings (Credit Mark McNulty)

Born and bred in Amsterdam, Rothuizen’s work focuses on detailed observations of physical environments with extensive research into the personal experiences and perspectives of the people who live there. Combining drawing with text, his works have been translated into English, Spanish and Chinese.

His posters are plastered 150 times through Manchester and its metrolink network for the duration of the festival. Rothuizen describes this work as, “A combination of words and images. The things I cannot draw I describe, and the things I cannot describe I try to draw. You could say it is a reportage drawing – it’s a drawing of what is going on in a certain place.”

line drawing of a scene on a train with a series of written statements

Mood Drawing by Jan Rothuizen

The first poster in the series illustrates one man’s experience of panic attacks on the Manchester tram system. The second concentrates on Buile Hill Park and the volunteers who work on the community allotments to aid their mental health.

The third portrays Moston Lane, drily dubbed ‘Alcohol Alley’ which also has a thriving multicultural shopping scene. The fourth focuses on a husband in Wythenshawe who cares for his wife who has neuropathy (a nerve disease) and also has to tend to his own severe anxiety. The fifth is a vivid portrayal of the city centre through the eyes of Steven, a man who has been homeless for almost three decades. Each illustration is weaved with fraught emotion, anxieties and fears, yet all are imbued with an undeniable sense of hope, and the enduring power of the human spirit to survive at whatever cost.

Mood Drawings was developed remotely as Rothuizen is based in the Netherlands and was unable to travel to Manchester during the pandemic. Understandably, this is not Rothuizen’s usual way of working: normally he will spend long periods of time experiencing firsthand the nooks and crannies of a location and interacting with the people that filter in and out of that space. Having to work within the pandemic’s parameters, through video calls Rothuizen was introduced to five districts in Greater Manchester and became acquainted with residents who have a personal experience of mental health.

One such person is Mark Frith, a therapeutic horticulturist who runs Growing Togetherness, an outdoor-based mental health charity based in Buile Hill Park. Using WhatsApp videos, Frith was able to take Rothuizen on walks through the park so he could better understand the landscape, meet the locals and hear their stories. With Frith’s help, Rothuizen was able to glean an understanding of the park’s volunteers and how they support each other’s wellbeing through gardening, vegetable growing, and building outdoor structures from recycled materials.

Like many of his artworks, Rothuizen provides a cross-section of voices in his poster depicting Buile Hill Park. Similar to a Richard Scary children’s book, pithy descriptions sit side by side across the page, ‘The garden for the blind. You are allowed to touch all the plants.’ Your eye may be drawn to ‘ “I was off my head” says Jane, who walked in this park while being treated in the nearby hospital for psychosis’, then looking down in the left hand corner, ‘Media City is not far from here so house prices have risen’. All tell the story of an intricate web of residents and history living atop one another in an emotionally charged, memory-rich metropolis.

Although Rothuizen wasn’t able to experience Manchester and its inhabitants directly, he has done a remarkable job illustrating the frenetic energy of the city, pairing this with the tense inner worlds of its inhabitants. The picture he paints is one of unease, as if the city is churning with troubled citizens all desperately trying to survive their surroundings. “I think what is interesting about a city is its friction because often it’s too many things in too small a space,” says Rothuizen. “I’m curious about how certain areas of a city evolve. When you go to a place, you feel there is something going on, and often that is very intuitive. I sense something and I try to discover what it is. This is often about friction, for example with city planning compared to people spontaneously coming out and doing things in the street.”

He continues: “I believe our experience of our environment is not so much about measuring things but about our subjective connection to how we perceive places. How we perceive places has a lot to do with the knowledge that we have, and how we feel personally.”

This insight feels especially resonant in Rothuizen’s poster depicting one man’s frequent experiences of panic attacks on trams. To the unsuspecting onlooker, he is just another traveller on public transport. But for him, he is a piece of kindling about to take flame; any movement or flicker could offset another panic attack. Within the poster Rothuizen quotes him as saying, “My first panic attack was on a tram. I was fourteen years old. Now I’m a middle-aged man who lives with fear. Which is why even today I double check that I’ve got my water bottle before I get on this tram.”

Overall, Rothuizen has balanced the stark reality of the many Manchester inhabitants struggling with mental health issues, with the promise that a more hopeful future lies within that exact community and the support they can give each other.

MINDSCAPES is a programme produced by SICK! Festival in Manchester, partnering with cultural institutions in The Netherlands. You can find out more about Jan Rothuizen’s Mood Drawings on the Mindscapes website.