A Picture Tells a Thousand Words: painting PTSD

As his exhibition The Twisted Rose and Other Lives tours the UK, artist Andy Farr talks about painting people affected by PTSD.

For the last year I have been painting people who are recovering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]. The resulting exhibition, The Twisted Rose and other Lives, was first exhibited at the Institute of Mental Health, Nottingham (IMH) in 2018 and subsequently Coventry, London, and Newcastle before its scheduled close in Lancaster in autumn 2019.

Each painting was the result of conversations with someone who has lived experience of PTS. As an artist the focus for that dialogue was very different to that with a medical professional. I did not want to focus on the trauma itself, but rather on the emotions and feelings their experience had evoked. Out of each conversation ideas for metaphors or ways of expressing their story started to emerge, and my usual artistic process of seeking images, colours, and textures took over.

For several of the paintings the decision to be “in” the picture wasn’t always easy. The final step of “coming out” in public about their mental health, was a significant one. Adam, a paramedic, thought long and hard about going public, ultimately deciding that it was important to do so.

The Man Inside (Adam’s painting). © Andy Farr

“… a by-product of being in the Emergency Services is exposure to trauma which in turn may lead to [poor] mental health. I have had too many crewmates and colleagues take their own lives for often reasons unknown. People who you wouldn’t think had mental health problems, who appeared outwardly confident but mentally must have struggled with no support. I don’t want to see that happen to anyone again and I’m hoping by myself speaking out will encourage others to do so also.”

The degree of responsibility felt by me, the artist, to the person I’m painting is huge. I have never before felt the same level of trepidation when sending or showing the first version of a painting to someone as I have during this project. The responses have been deeply moving.

At the start of the project I had assumed the primary audience would be the wider public: I was hoping that showing what it is like to suffer and, more importantly recover, from mental health problems would help to raise awareness and consciousness of the issues surrounding trauma.

The response from the public has been highly positive. Adam’s painting and associated story have featured in the internal paramedic’s newsletter and some of those visiting the exhibitions have been powerfully moved, as demonstrated by this email I received from a visitor to the Coventry show:

Daylight (Mark’s painting). © Andy Farr

“I looked at the paintings first, before reading the guide. I was struck first by ‘Invitation’ – as someone who comes across as extrovert but suffers from anxiety, your painting struck a nerve…. I then picked up the guide and viewed the paintings again. That’s when I found ‘Daylight’.  Oh boy. If I thought ‘Invitation’ struck a nerve, then that was nothing against reading of Mark’s experience.  I don’t have personal experience of abuse like Mark, but I do understand that thought that somehow putting things into a mental box is going to solve the problem. … Your work has really touched me today …”

As the project progressed, it became clear to me that the most important audience for this work was the subjects of the paintings themselves. The first painting I finished was Invitation, based on Rachel’s experience of birth trauma:

I cried! the colours are perfect. The me looking round the corner completely sums up that feeling of lost in the grey world feeling frightened of everything. Welcoming Rachel is the old me too. It’s like you looked in my head and painted. It’s honestly amazing.

I went to bed thinking about the painting and it’s almost like now there is a third Rachel. The one I am now who is able to connect with both the figures in the painting. Which is really nice.”

Invitation (Rachel’s painting). © Andy Farr

So why did this work have such powerful effects? What learnings can be drawn from the responses? Based on my own reflections and conversations with those involved with the work, both participants and mental health practitioners, I arrived at four broad themes: the power of storytelling; being listened to; the role of metaphor; and a rather more nebulous sense that having something in public may have a positive impact.

Each of the paintings created is a form of narrative. As Stephen Joseph (2011) says “we human beings are story tellers. Trauma triggers within us the need to tell stories to make sense of what has happened. Books, songs, poetry and art can provide us with the “language” to capture what we are experiencing. It is in the struggle to make sense of a traumatic event that recovery and growth happen.”

In contrast, Marissa Lambert (formerly peer-support lead for the Institute of Mental Health, Nottingham) has strong feelings about the way in which narratives are shared within a traditional therapy setting, and why this can become a negative process:

“People are forced to repeatedly recount their own experiences as part clinical assessments. A situation in which a person’s freedom to disclose is contingent upon the individual’s power, status and position. It can be re-traumatising for people to simply tell and re-tell an account of loss or trauma – become stuck in that negative feedback loop.”

So perhaps working with an artist rather than a “doctor” allowed participants to think about their story in a different way. Additionally, being an “outsider”, the process was “non-judgemental”.

Each painting reflects the participant’s personal story, but the emphasis on feelings and emotions, rather than events, gave participants the opportunity to focus on the narrative in a different, perhaps more metaphorical ways.

The Twisted Rose. © Andy Farr

Through my dialogue with each participant I was looking for a metaphor that would capture the essence of their story. The title piece for the exhibition was inspired by “Mac’s” story. Mac suffered childhood abuse, and toward the end of his therapy described himself as feeling like “A twisted rose, growing out of the dark into the light, but still carrying the scars of his past”.  As Moon (2007) notes, “artistic metaphors invite us to look at, listen to, and respond to them, and wonder about their meanings.  Rather than assigning fixed interpretations.” This metaphor seems to sum up much about PTSD and recovery. The past cannot be undone or erased from the memory, but it is possible for people to learn to accept and give meaning to their experiences, and ultimately start to recover and grow.

There is one final strand that seems also to be significant. Susana, one of the participants, shared with me a passage written by Soren Kierkegaard:

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”

I wonder if part of the reason for the positive response to the work from stemmed from a need to have their stories made public. To reclaim their experiences for themselves.

The final scheduled exhibition of the Twisted Rose paintings will be at Lancaster City Museum, from 19th September to 3rd November 2019. Andy is interested in working with anyone who would like to explore further the healing power of “having your story told”. From November 2019 many of the paintings will be available for further exhibition.


About the Artist

Andy Farr is a British artist based in Warwickshire. In 2018 he was a winner in the Ashurst Emerging Artist awards.

For this project he collaborated with Dr Elvira Perez Vallejos (Associate Professor of Digital Technology and Mental Health, Faculty of Medicine & Health Science, University of Nottingham), Dr Gary Winship, (Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham), and Marissa Lambert (formerly National Peer Support Lead, The Institute of Mental Health, currently Director, With-you Consultancy) at the Institute of Mental Health Nottingham, and received funding from Arts Council England.

Works cited

Joseph, S. (2011). What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. New York: Basic Books.

Moon, B. (2007). The Role of Metaphor in Art Therapy: Theory, Method, And Experience. Springfield IL; Charles C. Thomas Publishing Ltd.

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