Please share a bit about you and your artistic background.
My name is Saira-Jayne Jones and my artistic background really came from having mental health issues to do with my care experience, my background and my childhood. I didn’t really recognise that I have always had issues with anxiety and depression, even when I was very small as a child. It wasn’t until my 30s that I actually recognised that’s what it was. I needed to find a way that was healthy to deal with it and that’s when I started drawing, writing poetry and painting. I had never even painted a stick person before but then I started painting which was a bit weird. I found it quite therapeutic; being able to explore the things that you can’t talk about and create an image with your thoughts and feelings enables people to engage with them. Sometimes you can chat to people and they don’t necessarily understand. It is really difficult to verbalise some things, but it’s easier to paint them, draw them or use mix-media.
It was very private at first. I kept it to myself and didn’t really want to show anyone what I was up to. Then I saw an advertisement for an exhibition from another care experienced person. I’d never really met another care experienced adult, I’d only really known kids in care when I was a kid in care myself. So I thought I’d go along to this exhibition and take my nephews along too. Some of the pieces in this exhibition were quite challenging in terms of labelling, identity and ethnicity. I tweeted the guy afterwards and we met up. We had an instant connection through some of the pieces and different threads of connectivity through experience. So then I became more involved in putting my work out there and started sharing stuff with Perspective Project and other exhibitions.
Originally it was all anonymous. People are judgemental and people can take a certain view about your capability to fulfil your role when you have certain narratives and histories attached to you. I was a bit worried about how that would go down within the environment I was working in Social Work. I waited until I resigned from where I was working and started developing some ideas with my friend, who sadly passed away in January from COVID-19. He was the co-founder of Artifacts with me. We started thinking about how art and creativity are really good vehicles for discussing topics in society that can be taboo and bring about certain judgements, stigmas, stereotypes and biases. Coming from a care background and being on the receiving end of social work and mental health services, we thought this is a prime opportunity to do it in a bit of a different and creative way. We want to open people up to the analytical approach through creativity, looking at pieces of artwork and thinking what does that actually say to you? How can we use the art which we are creating anyway to BE the difference? Get people thinking and engaging with the care experience and trauma in a different way. Trauma often manifests itself in things like anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation. We wanted to be able to connect with our experience and our stories, but also bring that to life for other people so that they can engage with it and see how they can be the difference themselves.
From mine and Yusuf’s perspective, people are always talking about making a difference. People always say they want to make a difference but never do anything about it. At Artifacts, we say we want to BE the difference because being the difference makes it tangible and personal. You can be the difference just by doing simple things like holding a door open for somebody, getting someone a drink, passing someone a tissue - little tiny things. It starts with the small stuff being the difference. Because of trauma, we’re hard-wired to protect ourselves. So relationship building is something that's always quite problematic. But you don’t have to have a relationship with someone to pass them a tissue or open a door.
We also want to let young people know that your experiences do not define you. You may have problems with anxiety and that can be a barrier for you, but there are things you can do to get around that. There are ways and means of surviving and existing. Not only surviving but also being really successful while still having anxiety, depression or PTSD. We wanted to break down some of those barriers and open up conversations and give a lived-experience perspective. I think going to University myself and reading the books is fantastic and gives you a bit of an understanding, but it’s not until you connect the academic and theoretical side with real life that you can have a true understanding of how it feels and what it looks like.
Thank you for sharing, it seems like you do such great work. Could you tell us a bit about your poetry?
I’ve always written but I kept it very private. I knew I could write because I wrote at home but in my English class I played up. I didn’t want anyone else to know that I could write because my writing was all about my thoughts and feelings. Trauma wires you to protect yourself; you don’t want to let people inside to access your thoughts. I always got kicked out of my English class but then I realised I needed English. So I went back to college to re-do my English and I got an amazing teacher. She said ‘let’s put the syllabus stuff to one-side and write something you enjoy writing about.’ So I wrote a few poems to give to her and she thought they contained some difficult subjects for someone of my age.
From there I thought I'd show people my writing and see what happens. I started writing more poems because it was a way to express myself and also allowed people to access things that I didn’t necessarily want to speak about. In 2018 I got involved with a charity called ‘Your Life Your Story’, which works with care experienced individuals to access their stories through poetry and art. I got up to read a poem in front of people. I don’t know what possessed me to do it. I use a walking stick anyway because I have a disability but I needed a chair because my legs were so shaky from anxiety. But I thought what’s the worst that’s going to happen to me?
In the audience was Louise Wallwien who wrote the play ‘GLUE’. I had imposter syndrome thinking what am I doing? But I got up and read it. It was a complete blur, I can’t even remember it. But afterwards I thought well I haven’t died. These people are still talking to me so I’ve not offended anyone.
Now, I use my poetry in my training and it enables me to bring in the child’s voice. Little Saira gets to say all the things she wasn’t able to when she was small because no one was listening or people were abusive and neglectful. It also enables professionals to access that child’s voice. They can't necessarily speak to the children they are working with but they may be able to get an insight and idea through what I share. I always talk about things in an honest way because I think in order to help young people, you have to truly engage with their lived experience.
Everything for me was seen as behaviour. I was from a bad council estate and a single parent family and I didn’t have boundaries. No one was really looking underneath those layers to ask why is this child so sad? You’re saying she has no social skills but why is that? What is the issue here? No one ever peeled back those layers enough, no one ever saw it as anxiety or saw that it could be due to trauma. No one was really speaking about trauma in the 1980s.
I started to learn that actually this may not just be behaviour. I was working with people with Autism but there was a lot of connection across the threads of experience. Certain things were ringing true and I thought some of this is not just disability, it's coming from somewhere else. So I did a care course and then thought I want to know why things went so wrong for me. That’s why I went into Social Work initially. I went to University and started to learn more about childhood adversity and trauma and how that affects neurodevelopment, chemicals in your brian and why I’ve ended up on Venlafaxine. I started to learn about that and then look at my own experience. But I found that in some of the books they don't speak a lot about the really important issues. They don’t speak about children being sexually abused because no one wants to speak about that kind of stuff. But unless we talk about it, we’re not going to understand about the 4 and 5 year olds that are presenting trauma responses and significant mental health issues. That's only going to develop more if they’re not getting support or access to appropriate services. People are not recognising holistically what’s going on for that child. So I want to shine a light in the areas that no one really wants to look at.
There are some really warped ideas out there about how mental illness can present and what that means for other people’s safety. So some of my work is about busting the myths. A lot of care experience people are labelled as disordered, but no one really looks at it and says what’s happened in your life? What are the things that have impacted you from your perspective? When we start having those conversations, we realise that anyone would have responded in the same way if they had experienced that. Opening up those conversations shows us that we’re just human. We all deal with things in different ways and access our thoughts and feelings differently, but whether I got more angry than you did we all still have anger and upset.
Just knowing that I’m having all these feelings but I’m still human and there are other people out there who can identify with me and validate it. Often trauma feeds into our shame narrative that we must be inherently defective and there’s something innately wrong with us. When you start to develop mental health problems as well, it becomes a vicious circle. You feel really crappy so you must be crappy. It’s kind of a trauma loop, where the cycle of negative thoughts just consumes you. So I just want to connect on that human level. That in itself helps to dispel some of the stereotypes and stigma around mental health.
Could you discuss one of your art pieces with us?
The piece I’ll talk about is called ‘Mind Vomit’. This piece was trying to express that you can have the whole world going on inside your head. There are so many layers of thoughts, and then you get thoughts about your thoughts and obsess over them.
I try to use colours to represent different feelings and emotions. Yellow is my anxiety colour, red is pain, orange is anger or rage, blue is sadness and green is my shame colour. I try to use all these different colours because I had kept everything in, all these layers of thoughts. Sometimes it feels like you are a pressure cooker and your head will just explode if you don’t put these thoughts somewhere, whether that be journaling, painting, or being able to cry to one of your friends. I thought about how I’d express that on the outside.
So in this piece, there’s an empty body. It’s only an outline of the body to show that the load will be lighter if we try to get some of it out there. Just finding some kind of outlet so you’re not feeding into that loop of your own thoughts. When you’re physically sick, you'd go vomit. When there’s things going on in your mind, you can’t really projectile vomit anywhere. There’s no way of getting it out apart from finding some kind of outlet that’s good for you. So that is my outlet, that’s my mind vomit.
Do you find that you use a particular media for certain feelings as well?
Not really, it tends to be whatever I grab. Because of being care experience, I have quite a dark sense of humour. I always say that I use thrown away and found objects because that’s what I was. I was an object that was taken on for a little bit and they tried to make it a bit better and then sent it somewhere else. That’s what I do with things that I find, I put them into my art and then someone buys them and I send them somewhere else. I use things that have been rejected by other people because they’re a bit broken or not quite perfect. I purposely get canvases that have dents in them because I think I’m going to make so no one will ever realise the dent was there - like me.
Any lessons from your artistic journey?
I think about how much freedom you can get through using creativity and how you can make realisations about yourself. My tolerance was awful but I’ve had to learn to be more tolerant. Painting with oils - gosh! It takes about 3 weeks to dry. I’ve learnt to deal with my frustrations a bit better. The first time I painted an oil painting I went to pick it up and I left a big smudge with my hand. I had a complete meltdown as I thought it was ruined. I decided to re-work it into something else and remember that it takes 3 weeks to dry so I have to be patient.
Learning that you can make mistakes and they’re not going to be catastrophic. You can explore things, you can experiment and people aren’t going to judge you for it because there are no rules in art. It’s about exploring your own creativity. It’s not about living up to other people’s standards or trying to fit into a box. It’s just about doing what you want to do and enjoying it. I think you can pick up so many other skills and internal resources. You need to be able to deal with the days where you haven't got all the reserves in the tank to do the hill climbs.
Do you still create everyday?
Not at the moment because I’m delivering training, workshops, having meetings and working with young people. I’m also starting my HEA at Coventry University soon so that will take up a bit of time. But I do try to create something everyday, even if it’s just a little scrawl on an envelope or doodle on my meeting minutes. I’ve got notebooks everywhere because I’ll have an idea and have to write it down. I’m on Venlafaxine, which helps me function on a daily basis but it also makes my mind like a sieve. So if I don’t write something down, it’s gone.
I do try to take my creative practices into my work as much as I can. All of my Social Work students at Coventry University have heard my poetry and seen my artwork. I put it in my presentations because I think everyone learns in a different way. Lectures are great but sometimes they can be boring and you can disengage from them. So if I throw a bit of artwork in there, people will pick up different bits from different places. They might get something from the poetry and not necessarily from the lecture.
Find more of Saira-Jayne's work on instagram.