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The Anxious Artist Finds a Safe Place

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

I have recently been searching for someone who can carry out some essential maintenance jobs in my home. I always dread this kind of thing, as I fear I may fall prey to cowboys, who will invade my space, do a shoddy job and take all my money. This has been my experience in the past and so I am extra wary. It is proving quite a challenging task!

Likewise, or even more so, I have wanted to be certain of having no cowboys meddle with my mind, as I have looked for a therapist who can offer EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing). This is a type of therapy which has been proven effective in helping people recover from PTSD and C-PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). It can help with symptoms such as intrusive and upsetting thoughts or images, flashbacks, hypervigilance and other body-mind symptoms one can experience in response to trauma. EMDR uses eye movements and sometimes sounds, or apparrently sometimes hand buzzers may be used to help stimulate the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This will enable it to process vivid and painful memories, which have become ’stuck’, so they become less intrusive and overwhelming.

EMDR can hold some appeal as there is less of a requirement to talk in detail about the traumatic experience(s). For me, I’m not so sure. There is so much that I have felt unable to talk about, for fear of upsetting others, or because I feel ashamed. I think there might be some relief in having the permission to open up, or at least as much as feels tolerable.

I am glad to say I have found a therapist, who I feel I can trust. I am nervous, but feel hopeful too. I have been reading through the paperwork about EMDR and have noticed that it can be helpful to identify a 'safe place' for the mind to go to, if things get a bit too intense in the sessions. In the past, when I have been asked to bring a 'safe place' to mind, I have found it difficult and have had to draw upon my imagination. However, on this occasion, I feel equipped! For those of you who have been regular reader; you might guess that my safe space would be Dungeness!

’Derek Jarman’s Garden’. Naomi Elfred-Ross. Mono screen print. 2022.

‘Soaking It All In’. Naomi Elfred-Ross. Mono screen print (2022)

I think that my Dungeness screen printing project, after my visit in the summer, has helped instill and maintain the feelings I experienced there. The sense of freedom, of being at the mercy of the elements, while feeling certain that nature would also take care of me. The sense of feeling so small, while also feeling on top of the world and as if anything were possible. This was my first visit to the sea since the pandemic, when so much had happened and I appreciated that sense of infinite space, as I gazed out towards the horizon, that much more.

It then occured to me that I am actually currently in a local group exhibition called 'My Happy Place'. Euphemisms aside, it didn't take me long to conculde that my prints would be ideal for submission, so they are now proudly on display at The Mill, in Walthamstow. I hope they will be enjoyed by others and maybe someone might even wish to treat themselves to one!

There are other places where I can now identify as feeling safe. They are all outdoor spaces and regular haunts, such as the Walthamstow Marshes and Wetlands and Epping Forest. One doesn't have to look far to see the research studies that endorse being out in nature as being good for mental wellbeing. I don't feel the need to read them because I instinctively know this. My body and my mind quieten when I am in natural surroundings. I become more aware of the sounds around me, such as the rustling of leaves or birdsong. Then there is the changing sensations of the unevenness of the ground beneath my feet and the sense of smell, fresh, floral, or rich and earthy, depending on the season. It seems that in order to feel safe, it is important to be in the present moment and paying attention, not to the internal dialogue, but to ones surroundings, engaging all of the senses.

Walthamstow Wetlands

I would like to say that my home felt safe, but I'm not exactly sure it does. This isn't helped by the threat of some rather unsettling work being carried out in the near future. I have described before finding it difficult to leave my home for long periods. This is due to an irrational fear, related to my past, that something will happen to it and I won't have a home to return to. Additionally, this would somehow be my fault. Perhaps the EMDR will help with this; I really hope so, although I know I need to try to manage my expectations.

I have also been considering the kind of artwork that I might call to mind, in creating a safe mental space. I tend to find larger scale and more minimalist artworks the most calming. I think this is because they help create a sense of clarity and calm, as there isn't too much for the mind to take in. I remember going to the Agnes Martin retrospective at the Tate and feeling so emotional because of the relief of the sense of peace I felt as I gazed upon her pencil drawn, precise, geometric lines and ethereal colours. Another safe space, turns out I have lots of them!

Getting in the zone with Agnes Martin's ‘Untitled 5’ (1998).

‘Happy Holidays’ (1999). Agnes Martin.

An exhibition I visited recently had a similar impact, also at the Tate. I had not heard of artist Maria Bartuszova (1936-1996) before, but her organic shaped white plaster forms seemed to reach me on a purely emotional level. There were no words and I did not invite my brain to explain what I was experiencing, but it was a good feeling. I find the brain often ruins the experience of intuitive and instinctive feelings, so busy trying to tidy it all away into boxes with labels on.

Photo taken at Maria Bartuszova exhibition at the Tate Modern, November 2022

I also find tranquility and safety in looking upon domestic scenes in art. I enjoy many of the paintings by Dutch artists, such as those by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). I have recently discoved a more contemporary American artist, via a Facebook group I have been following (social media can be good for some things!) named Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). There is something reassuring in looking at images of some of the simpler and more familiar tasks of daily life, even if the scenes are not of contemporary life. I think, perhaps, domestic scenes of the past have more appeal, as they look much more straightforward and natural than our world of gadgets and gizmos (I sound really old now!).

‘The Milkmaid’. Johannes Vermeer (1658)

'Wind From The Sea' (1947). Andrew Wyeth.

It is interesting, that while all of this searching has been going on, I have been drawn to visit art exhibitions more, as though I know that being with art is also a place of safety for me. These are spaces where I feel a sense of belonging, as ideas and feelings are expressed in a language I understand. I have also visited a retrospective of the paintings of Forrest Bess (1911-1977), an American artist, who lived in the desert in Texas. Bess was a visionary painter, who communicated his dreams and visions through smaller scale, vibrant, simple images. These were so rich in symbolism and were shown in the semi dark, as he would have wished, because many of these images would have appeared to him at night. I found that looking upon these images enabled me to connect to my own unconscious mind, transcending my conscious thoughts and taking me to a more spiritual place. I came away from the exhibition feeling as though I had taken a break from the cacophony of life and had given me the gift of a moment of tranquility.

Pictures taken from the Forrest Bess 'Out of the Blue' exhibition, at the Camden Art Centre, London. November 2022.

On a slightly different note, I have recently signed up for free climbing classes, at a local climbing wall. My body hasn't felt like a particularly safe place to inhabit for quite some time. Having long been interested in the idea of climbing, learning of its benefits to mental and physical health, so I can begin to learn to trust my body to carry me through my days and over the rocky mounds. This, of course, requires lots of energy, so I’m having to ensure I am giving my body the fuel it needs. This is something that I find hard, but I recognise the reward in doing so. Having had my second lesson, I was amazed at what my (supposedly) 'broken' body could achieve, I felt great! My mind had quietened, because of the focus climbing requires, and with that came a sense of peace. It is quite a coincidence (or perhaps not) that I should happen upon these free classes at such a crucial time.

I feel wary about trusting this idea, but it feels as though various aspects in my life may, at last, have the potential to fall into place. I feel less determined to sabotage my steps to wellness and more curious about what it would be like to actually live again. This, with the knowledge that it is possible to access safety from within myself, by spiritual means and from my surroundings, wherever I may be. I think all of these things are interconnected anyway.

Since starting this blog, I have had my first session of EMDR and sense this will be a difficult process. I'm not expecting miracles. However, perhaps a long awaited, new (slightly scary) phase in the journey of my life might be afoot. Change is frightening and can feel risky, even change for the ‘better’. We hold onto what is familiar, even if it hurts. This is particularly so where trauma is involved, where the main priority is to be watchful for danger. It is a tremendous leap of faith to entertain the idea that such hyper vigilance is not necessary. So, don’t hold me to it, I'm quite (extremely) anxious about it… but I want to try and I will let you know how I get on! Oh and regarding 'getting a man in' to do the repairs in my home, I feel less optimistic. We have someone booked in this week, so wish me luck!

Naomi Elfred-Ross


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