Artist and children work together to tackle fears in Bethnal Green exhibition

Pic: Elsbeth Van Der Poel

WorryBoy raises issues about mental health and everyday fears, but also happiness. Pic: Elsbeth Van Der Poel

Anxiety is explored in this remarkable multi-media exhibition tackling a child’s overwhelming fear of the hatred and pain in the world.

Tucked away just off a busy main road in Bethnal Green is Oxford House, currently showcasing the WorryBoy exhibition.

WorryBoy is the brainchild of Elsbeth van der Peol, an artist and storyteller, who worked with children from local schools in Bethnal Green to bring together this work of art.

Dark, claustrophobic colours that reflect the inner thoughts and feelings of Jonah are prominent throughout the exhibition with the occasional bright colour making an appearance to show that it’s not all bad in the real world.

Jonah is worried about a lot of things, from guns to gangs, debt to bombs and everything in between. One 3D collage/drawing shows how divided Jonah’s mind is and how constant fear dominates every aspect of his life. This was perhaps the most prominent piece of art in the entire exhibition – you see how scary the world is for children who don’t really understand what’s happening – much like most adults.

As soon as you enter the Oxford House gallery, the story begins. On your left you find the first drawing and the first page of the story. Jonah has a headache that’s causing him a lot of pain but flash forward a few hours later and his head has become ginormous.

Walking down the sloping walkway of the building, you find yourself delving further and further into Jonah’s mind before climbing down some steep steps to the root of Jonah’s problem.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The end of the gallery and the subsequent end of the story shows that focusing on the little pockets of happiness in life can bring joy and reprieve from the bad things going on around us. This resolution to Jonah’s story is a pleasant contrast to a beginning that is quite overwhelmingly sad.

One piece of art work is a giant amalgamation of intricate, orange lines with devilish faces and flowers dotted throughout whilst a doctor opens up Jonah’s head to figure out just what’s going on there.

The next sequence in the story is exciting and completely bizarre – it’s a mixture of Les Miserables and Harry Potter – we are plunged into Jonah’s head. A revolution is occurring. The people of Inneshead Town will not be subject to the oppressive rule of their leader any longer – the resistance is rising!

In collaboration with schools in the Bethnal Green area, children had the opportunity to put together their own version of Wonderland and what makes them happy.

But why would anybody in their right mind want to dedicate their free time to going to a gallery of children’s work? The pieces created by the children – of which there are few – are surprisingly self-aware and although the drawings aren’t particularly spectacular, the comments that go along with them are.

worryboy 2

WorryBoy at Oxford House Pic: Rebecca Henrys

One child’s drawing was all blue with the stand-out quote being: “My wonderland is not perfect, nothing or nobody is, but you just have to set aside your flaws and find where you find happiness.” There were also other smaller, well known quotes such as “Keep smiling, it’s what you do best” and “Not all those who wander are lost.”

Little details like this and the fact van der Poel gave children the chance to explore mental health as well as what makes them happy are what makes this entire exhibition great to visit. By delving deep into mental health but keeping it light-hearted, WorryBoy is something that the entire family can enjoy and connect with without the theme being too mature or intense.

The story itself, whilst interesting, isn’t particularly easy to follow. With a lack of accompanying words, it’s more guesswork trying to figure out what’s actually happening. The only way to meticulously follow what’s going on is to turn to van der Poel’s website which gives a breakdown of WorryBoy.

Walking through the story of Jonah is however a truly immersive, interesting experience that everybody should have the opportunity to try.

WorryBoy will be running until June 30 at Oxford House in Bethnal Green.

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