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The art of saving the planet

Dr Angela Wilson describes the launch of an art exhibition to urge people to fight climate change

The early start throws me straight into the admin for the various unpaid climate and art projects that I do alongside being a GP. I’m trying to make my methods of work more sustainable, such as by setting up a local greener practice network.

I’m visiting London for the opening of an exhibition I’ve helped to organise and curate. The theme is ‘health and the climate and ecological emergency’, which coincides with the health and climate emergency recently declared by University College London Hospitals (UCLH). Partnering with its arts and heritage group, we have 29 works in the hospital itself, with a further 23 on the museum app Smartify. There will also be webinars during the two months of the exhibition, on topics like sustainability in the NHS, nature, art and health.

I deal with my emails while I’m on the train. Closer to home, I’ve also been helping to organise an event for the Hanborough Nature Recovery Network, and, for the RCGP, introducing GPs to ways to ‘green up’ their practices. I also formed the online Healthcare Arts Collective a year ago, alongside another GP, a psychiatrist and a retired public health doctor. Together we created the UCLH event.

I arrive in London and visit friends from a local Extinction Rebellion (XR) group. I’ve been less active with Doctors for XR in the past 18 months because of Covid regulations and also because I took a salaried job. I’m now back to being a locum three sessions a week. The media picture of the XR people is inaccurate – I find them to be caring, up to date on climate change, and well versed with ideas on how to combat it. 

I go to UCLH to see the art in the flesh for the first time. Until now, the process has been to invite people to enter their art online. The virtual launch was two days before. Artists like me have had a hard time during the pandemic. I make paintings, drawings and linocuts, but didn’t enter this exhibition myself. 

With this exhibition we are trying to engage staff and patients with the climate and ecological emergencies, and of course we wish to highlight the importance of art itself.  

Clockwise from top left: North Kent Marshes by Cas Holmes; Adapt or Die by Tessa Gaynn; Leaf Angels by Steve Edwards; A Good Ecology Gives Peace of Mind by Claire McDermott

We spend an hour at the exhibition, though the best we can offer other in-person visitors who come just for the art is a view through the hospital window, as the hospital is under Covid restrictions. We’re encouraged by how engaged staff and patients are. 

Time for dinner with the Healthcare Arts Collective team. We’ve enjoyed organising this exhibition and now it is under way, are keen to launch another, but we should wait. We’ve learned so much – that arranging an exhibition takes time but is rewarding, and that the call for submissions wasn’t open for long enough, although we still got lots of great entries. We also learned that art can help to engage people in a difficult subject.

I’ve recently taken up the position of climate and sustainability lead with the RCGP Thames Valley Faculty. Locuming as a GP allows me to attend events as needed. I see how hard GP teams work in practices, and I sometimes consider doing more sessions, but I live in hope that a positive tipping point has arrived with an increasing interest in environmental issues. This should help the health of current and future generations, if we act fast enough.

Back in 2018, I worked hard to get action on the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. People are now more aware of the threat, but we need to stay engaged. Art is a powerful tool for that.

On the train home I juggle emails, social media and catching up on the news. Meditation allows me to process it without feeling overwhelmed. Once back, I go to bed with a warm glow from having been able to meet and act with friends and colleagues. Tomorrow will be a more standard day in general practice. 

I certainly feel part of a community in both the GP practice where I do most of my work and in projects like this art exhibition. I’d encourage everyone with a passion to follow this energy. 

Profile: Dr Angela Wilson

Location: South and west Oxfordshire

Roles: Locum GP also working in sustainability, environment, nature, and art

Hours worked per week: Typically three sessions as a GP, one unpaid session in sustainability, and variable on other aspects depending on events and demand