Please share a bit about you and your artistic background.
I was born in South London. I could have gone to University to study Fine Art at the age of 18 (I’m now 63), but I trained as a teacher instead. At the start I naively thought that I could teach during the day and paint during the evenings and weekends. I was wrong! So, despite a few exhibitions in the 1980s, my painting practise lapsed from about 1987 and a long artistic hiatus began as teaching increasingly drained my creative and emotional energy. Eventually working in a local authority’s school advisory department also sapped my sense of self. I therefore took early retirement from work just over three years ago due to anxiety and depression. I thought at the time it was the end of me; but it turned out to be a new and positive beginning.
I have always been interested in technology and photography. During my sick leave, I started dabbling with composite photography and digital drawing. My immersion in these new media as a form of artistic expression became intense and the themes and content grew increasingly dark and disturbing. It wasn’t until a year in that I realised how therapeutic and cathartic this creation process was. Thirty years of pent-up creative energy is a powerful thing!
I now continue to make digital composite art but over the last 18 months I have also started to paint acrylic on canvas again, mainly portraits of people and pets. I call the latter my light side in contrast to the digital composite content. So whilst my digital art continues to be quite dark in subject matter, my portrait painting is much more celebratory and joyful.
How is your work influenced or informed by mental health?
Looking back, I have always been an anxious person and very shy. I think that’s why I turned down a university place as it was so far from home. However, I longed for attention and recognition. Displaying my paintings seemed a safe way to do this as when they were on a wall or online, I was one removed from the responses but they remained personal to me. I could observe the observers if you like. Unexpectedly, my unhealthy mental state eventually turned out to be the stimulus for my restarting my artistic practice. The content and subject matter cover a range of my mental states and the anguish I was feeling. I wanted to scream out loud, but felt too inhibited to do that physically, even in a private or secluded space. I felt urges to self-harm, but was too afraid to experience the physical pain.
I found that sharing my work online got me growing numbers of ‘likes’ on dark art Facebook groups. This, in turn, seemed to help others. A lady from Quebec, Canada messaged me and said, “Your art made me cry this morning. Why? Because I can relate each image to my situation from childhood to now. Thank you. You came on my path with all those images which are a clear representation of my life story.”
'Where Is My Self?' Series
Do you feel that your creative practices help with your mental health and wellbeing?
Some people have said, ”Your paintings are so uncomfortable." And others, "Oh, they're so funny." And yet others comment, “They're so dark, and macabre.” My view is they are all of these things. After all, that's the human condition, isn't it? Overlapping and potentially contradicting feelings, emotions and reactions to this crazy world!
My most recent work explores ideas of ‘self’ (or lack of it), societal relationships, both physical, emotional and psychological and the inevitable cognitive dissonance that fear and anxiety exacerbate. Creating quite disturbing and horrific images express my inner turmoil and generate metaphors for me to work with. The act of creation also became an essential part of my therapy and self treatment. I didn’t need to scream out loud when I could make pictures of my inner anguish. I didn’t need to cut myself when I could show blood, cuts and knives in my pictures. I think that making my dark art probably saved me from deeper depression and further debilitating mental disease. I have been on my own journey for the last few years, trying to understand my own mask, my unwillingness to be me and my reluctance to share who I am.
The therapeutic nature of expressing my darkest thoughts, feelings and ideas has been profound. It was a vital and major part of my healing. The self-therapy of creating visual expressions of my inner thoughts became equivalent to how I understand the face-to-face work of psychologists and psychiatrists in mental health.
Please talk through one of your pieces with us, outlining your artistic process and meaning/intention behind the work.
I’ve chosen this piece because it includes the majority of my themes and metaphors in one place. It’s called ‘Thoughts Without a Thinker’ and is the fourth in a series of four paintings. The other three also appear in this last piece, but more of that later.
I think at first glance the subjects of my artwork may appear familiar, easily recognisable and realistic (a derelict room, a forest clearing etc.) but when you look closer they become more intriguing, even discomforting. This is because I want to create a vivid emotional response and a feeling of uncertainty.
After people have noticed the unexpected and surprising nature of the images, the detail and layers encourage you to take an even closer look and to explore beyond the surface. A multitude of metaphors emerge and connect. Time is handled as if it were a great simultaneity where everything in a person's history can happen all at once, revealing the complexity of our sentient experience. This is why I use recursion a lot. Many earlier paintings re-appear in later works. The image in the middle of this piece is in fact a separate piece from several months before. It’s a bit like going over and over the same uninvited often negative thoughts, but gradually making more sense of them. I see this technique as a metaphor for our thought processes which are often fleeting and hard to grasp, yet fascinating; producing a detailed mosaic that represents our reality which is itself constructed from these very thoughts and feelings.
My process, although digital, requires a lot of technique, skill, hand crafting and aesthetic consideration. Works are built up over time in a multi-layered, composite way, often from over a dozen source images. The piece illustrated has over 20 source images. So I use my tablet and computer with photo editing software and digital painting apps to make my work.
'Thoughts Without a Thinker IV', 2019
Process of 'Thoughts Without a Thinker IV'
Instead of painting on canvas or paper, digital painting allows me to paint directly onto a computer, which has a number of amazing advantages. First - It’s a lot less messy, and you can do it in even the smallest spaces – as long as you’ve got space to set up your tablet (and possibly a computer), you’re good to go. It’s a lot faster, as you don’t need to wait for paints to dry. It therefore allows me to work faster and more creatively. The powerful digital tools and layers unlock entirely new ways of working and thinking for me.
I’ve mentioned my use of recursion as a technique. I also use repeated motifs in most of my work that have become metaphors for my mental state. For example, the tally marks on walls express the mental imprisonment I felt, which each day being banal, and similar instead of unique and enticing.
Making repetitive marks and pointless counting seem almost like reciting a mantra at times to me. The black birds (crows, rooks, etc.) are often seen as witchy familiars or harbingers of death, but to me they hold a much more positive metaphor as well. Sometime alone, sometimes flocking, the birds offer hope and freedom through their wisdom and intelligence. In this painting, there are several ‘versions’ of me. The ‘dummy’ the recluse in the corner and the faceless non-self.
Can you tell me about some of the previous exhibitions you have been involved in?
In 1983 I had my first exhibition at the Blackheath Gallery group show and in 1984 I participated in the Greenwich open exhibition where I sold my first piece to a private collector. In 1986, the Greenwich Twin Town exhibition, between Greenwich and Maribor, Slovenia, was the first ‘international’ showing of my work. But then the hiatus begun!
I produced nothing again until 2019 but in June 2019 one of my digital pieces won recognition online with the World of Art Photography (WAP) Facebook group and by the following May a piece of mine was the cover image for their Covid Lockdown Special magazine. Another virtual exhibition followed in October 2020 called ‘Afraid of the Art’ hosted by the Sandbar Art Studio in Texas and then in April 2021 I had pieces in the Art in Solitude: An online exhibition by the Naschta Gallery Alsop in the US. My first physical exhibition after 35 years happened in November 2021 when I placed three pieces in the ‘After the Fireworks’ exhibition at the Yellow Edge Gallery, Gosport.
Can you share any lessons you have learned from your artistic journey and ongoing practice?
Like any journey, my artistic wanderings are an ongoing, humbling and sometimes difficult voyage. Perfectionism is my current stumbling block as is procrastination. My art is my voice; sometimes quiet sometimes a scream, but always worth a listen. Do I really need approval of others to keep making my art? Not anymore, but it’s nice to have!
What’s next for you?
I continue to battle my imposter syndrome but the light side of my work is taking more predominance over the dark side, which I take a sign of improving mental and emotional health. Therefore, I hope for more commissions, which help with my self-perception. Nevertheless, the dark side is ready to re-emerge when it is needed.