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Anxious Artist Blog: Thank You NHS

Recently, when I was unpacking the shopping, I thought I would put on the radio. Unfortunately, my timing wasn't great and I was unlucky enough to tune into the news, which I would normally try to avoid. Usually I would try and catch myself and tune out asap, as there always tends to be something to worry about, especially in these ‘interesting’ times. However, this time I was hooked and reeled in to the Tory leadership debate. I knew this wouldn’t be good listen, but the masochist in me needed to hear the inevitable horror story. I think if someone suffers from an anxiety disorder, there is often a lot of free-floating anxiety that needs to find things to attach itself to and these days there is no shortage of options. I think there is a protective function somewhere in there; something about the need to be hyper vigilant to potential danger, because I would otherwise be vulnerable to the unexpected monsters which lurk in the shadows. This way of coping may have once been useful to me in my life, the only problem is, it’s hard to shake off, now I no longer necessarily need it.

The conversation found its way to public spending and a particular favourite candidate being very much in favour of making immediate cuts, in order to reduce taxes. I immediately started to panic, as my mind immediately jumped to the NHS, which is already being sabotaged in every way possible. Our precious health service, which has given so much love and care to so many people is disappearing before our eyes and it seems there is so little that can be done about it. Also, having worked for many years for the NHS, I feel additionally protective. I eventually forced myself to turn the radio off, as my stomach was now in knots and my mind was going to places of catastrophe and that helps nobody. I tried to focus on the task at hand and put the groceries away and get on with the day.

I must have been reasonably successful, as it wasn’t until the following day, when I was out for my daily walk, that my thoughts returned to the NHS. However, this time in a more constructive way. I had been listening to an audiobook by Evelyn Waugh, which was about an artist during wartime, whose son had been sent to the front. The protagonist felt a deep sense of helplessness, both in being unable to protect his son, but also in his role in the war effort in generally. He initially abandoned his work, feeling it was irrelevant given all that was happening in the world. However, latterly, having connected with other artists he began to reconsider and recognised the artists role at times of such conflict, in bringing life and hope to a world that otherwise feels as though it is on its knees, intent on destruction.

As an artist, I have often wondered what value my work had. What was the point in the art that I make? It has always felt important that my work has some meaning and is in some way helpful to others. For me, art has the capacity explore and communicate some really challenging matters in such a way that it catches people unaware and so reaches them at a much deeper level, than if they were to be simply listening to the news. Art tends to be less threatening and so our defences are more likely to be down, as we are not expecting to be challenged in the same way and so we are more receptive. By contrast, the news is like a slap around the face.

So, with all of the above in mind. I turned my thoughts to my local hospital, Whipps Cross, and the service it has given to me, over the years. Yes, there have been times when I have been frustrated and haven’t necessarily had a good experience, nothing is perfect. However, the overwhelming feeling I have had, when I have been treated at the hospital and it’s connected services, has been one where I have been treated incredibly well. I would say the struggles I have had, for the most part, have been related to cuts to funding. The building itself has often been criticised too and it is certainly in need of some love, and in the past, I have been tempted to think similarly. However, I now look at it quite differently.

The pop artist Corita Kent spoke about seeing beauty everywhere and that it is not just in nature and things generally thought of as aesthetically pleasing, but also in the everyday and mundane. She celebrated billboards, adverts and shops signs and showed that, when approached from a certain angle, we really are surrounded by beauty.

As an artist, I very much enjoy Corita’s way of seeing the world. I had once heard that artists are able to think ‘out of the box’ because they have been found to be deficient in dopamine. Of course, the downside is that that also makes us vulnerable to mental health struggles, but I appreciate the silver lining! In fact, I often manage my anxiety by switching to the more creative side of my brain and one of these ways is by using my camera phone to take pictures of the ‘everyday’, but from a new perspective. It’s good fun! I decided, therefore, to pay a visit to Whipps Cross and take some arty snaps. I thought that I could then manipulate and edit the images, so I can make them into templates to create screen prints that would celebrate the beauty of our humble, yet magnificent health service.

Arriving at the hospital, I felt rather self-conscious, as I had not come for an appointment and felt like I was trespassing or an imposter. Would people wonder what this strange person was doing and what on earth is she finding so interesting? This thought made me laugh to myself, as I imagined I had been categorised as ‘weird arty sort’ pretty swiftly, for those paying attention, and I didn’t mind in the least. I had fun really exploring the old buildings of the hospital and venturing down alleyways and paths that I had never explored in the past, probably because I was too focused whatever ailment I was needing tending to. I wondered at the history it held and the lives that had passed through its doors. I focus particularly on looking up, as this is where the architecture is truly revealed, without obstruction and I enjoyed the backdrop of a rather moody looking sky. I later discovered the hospital was originally an infirmary, during the Great War, caring for thousands of wounded servicemen. Then changing its name to Whipps Cross Hospital in 1917, to coincide with the visit of King George V and Mary Queen. Fascinating! I also explored the newer buildings, as we tend to dismiss modern architecture as ugly, which I don’t think is necessarily true.

However, what surprisingly really grabbed my attention were the signposts. The humble signposts are unsung heroes; we rely on them to help us find our way to our varied appointments and yet, until now, I’m not sure I had truly paid attention to them. I enjoyed the multicolours that are used as an aide and the shapes they created, which framed and gave a new perspective to the surroundings. I took lots of snaps and then sat by the Hollow Ponds opposite (part of Epping Forest), and thoroughly enjoyed myself editing and creating interesting compositions.

What will I do with them? Well, I’m really enjoying my screen printing right now, so I will create some interesting templates, do a bit of layering, add colour… I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m going to enjoy finding out and look forward to sharing the results with you all. No, I don’t expect these prints will save the day, but they can be a message to whoever sees them that the NHS is loved and worth celebrating. The prints can be my message of thanks. Perhaps I can raise a few pennies to donate to Whipps Cross too, that would be a bonus! In the meantime, I get to feel a little less helpless and afraid, when I listen to the news. It is a drop in the ocean, but at least I’m doing something.

Photographs taken by Naomi Elfred-Ross (2022)

Screenprints, made in the style of Corita Kent, by Naomi Elfred-Ross (2018)

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