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The Anxious Artist: Processing Trauma Creatively

I am a member of the COVID Bereaved Families for Justice group. Although, I have taken quite a backseat, thus far. I have had to screen the Facebook group and many of the emails sent out because the weight of the grief and trauma of so many feels like more than I can bear. The shock and trauma of my mum’s death has affected my life in so many ways, not least that it has triggered a relapse of my eating disorder. I am vulnerable and need to tread carefully.

However, I recently received an email from the group, inviting me to participate in the Covid inquiry. My instant response was that I definitely wanted to be involved in this, even though I knew it would be hard. Of course, I realise there can never be true justice for what has happened, nothing can bring back our loved ones or undo the pain and suffering endured by so many, I definitely believe there is a need for answers. People in positions of power, who we were forced to trust, made decisions that cost so many precious lives and those people need to be made accountable.

I have taken the first step completed the initial questionnaire and signed the necessary documents, confirming my involvement. So far, this has been hard enough, as I have noticed my memories and flashbacks have become even more alive. I am aware that I will soon be asked to give a more detailed account of my mum’s death from covid and I am trying to anticipate how this may make me feel and how I can look after myself, as I relive these painful memories. I am an artist and am good at finding creative ways to communicate or help me manage the complexities of life, so I feel hopeful that I might draw upon these resources again.

So far, since my bereavement, I have explored and processed my grief in a few ways. In the very early days, ‘Goodbye Mama Cat’ came to my rescue. I did not intend to write and illustrate a book and in fact, would not have thought this possible and yet somehow, in those long and solitary lockdown days, that’s exactly what happened. Initially, I simply created the Mama Cat character to enable me to take enough of a step back, to draw upon some of my memories of happier times and this became a great comfort. Being unable to participate in the usual grieving rituals, it felt so important to share these memories with loved ones. This was initially on Facebook, but later on and thanks to the encouragement and generosity of others, I was able to bring my pictures together and tell the story of what it was like to grieve in isolation and create a book.

What can be particularly troubling about grief are the ‘messier’ feelings, that others don’t necessarily feel comfortable hearing about, or that may elicit a sense of shame and so are hidden. Anger is an example of one of those feelings and many who have been bereaved due to COVID feel, understandably, extremely angry. Yet, we live in a culture that denies the existence of such emotions and so they fester and can then come out in all sorts of ways. In my case, my health is being affected.

With this in mind, I found my way to a new and very different means of trying to explore and express some of the feelings that could not be put into words. Often these feelings can seem so potent, it almost is possible that they could cause real harm if expressed. I found that I was being drawn to work on a very tiny scale and matchboxes presented themselves as the ideal container for what emerged as my ‘Matchbox Stories’. Matchboxes being easily hidden and tucked away, but with the potential to destroy.

My ‘Matchbox Stories’ are a series of mixed media artworks on long strips of paper, which are folded like a concertina and kept ‘safe’ in a number of tiny matchboxes. On each strip of paper, I have collaged different types of graph paper, with zig zagging lines, representing the graphs enumerating the daily death toll, when COVID was at it’s peak. I could never bear to look at these dehumanising figures on the TV, but I was well aware of their existence. Over the top, I then told the story of my mum’s death, in every bit of detail I could muster, trying to draw upon all of my senses as I remembered. The intention here was to try to help myself process the most troubling parts of these memories, as I had been trained to do with others when I worked as a CBT therapist. This was not an easy process and I couldn’t do it in isolation, choosing Core Arts, in Hackney, as the supportive space where I felt safe enough to wander into these dark crevices of my mind.

Over the top of my writing and collage, I then painted semi abstract ‘mind landscapes’, depicting some of the colours that I recalled noticing at the time. Some were bright and vivid, while others were dark and stormy. The paint obscured my writing, so while there might be an invitation to others to come and look, I am ambivalent about how much I want to share, or perhaps I seek to protect the observer. The use of matchboxes hold further symbolism as there is also the immediate opportunity to burn what I have created.

When I reached the final matchbox chapter of my story, I found I was unable to write, as I couldn’t find any words at all to describe the hours which led to my mum’s death and the heartbreak beyond. Maybe it’s entirely appropriate to end in this way, to allow the abstract strip of painting to speak for itself, or maybe this is the place in the story in which I remain stuck, it’s hard to know.

I keep my ‘Matchbox Stories’, along with some of the items my mum had with her, while she was in hospital, in an old vanity case belonging to her. This is kept ‘safe’ underneath my bed, however, I have photographed the case burst open, with the stories exploding out of their confines, as is inevitable. Following this, the shameful process of refolding them and putting them away again, having exposed myself or having ‘made a scene’.

It is artists such as Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgeois to whom I feel indebted. Their subject matter and approach to art making has been described as confessional, but to me that doesn’t seem correct. Surely, to confess is an admission of some kind of sense of guilt at some wrong doing? What I see in their work is the sharing of life experiences that any one of us might relate to. Some of these experiences are deeply traumatic and disturbing and yet there is something so transformative and loving in the giving of self through art making.

Both artists work has also explored the death of the mother and the uniquely intricate bond that often exists between mother and daughter. The sense of abandonment and disorientation when that bond is severed by death can be acute. They have worked with a broad range of materials, which are symbolic in their own right in communicating the complex tapestry of the feminine lived experience.

Artists such as Bourgeois and Emin, who work in such a frank, uncompromising and autobiographical way have broadened the landscape of new possibilities for women artists. This has been desperately needed and so welcome and is why I feel emboldened enough to work in the way that I do, to tell some of my story through my art and as I share it with you now. I am just dipping my toe in, as working and sharing in this way does make me feel vulnerable, but I am confident that it is worthwhile and appreciated, even if the patriarchal art world may continue to dismiss and ridicule it.

So, as I close, I return to my involvement in COVID inquiry. Perhaps through participating, there will be an opportunity to finally free myself, as I, among many other brave souls recount such painful memories. Even though I’m not sure I feel very brave, I feel encouraged that I am far from alone. Perhaps I will feel a sense of catharsis in the telling and that others may appreciate my doing so. The outcome of the inquiry feels less important than the act of speaking out and the refusal to be silenced. In the meantime, I can heal wounds through writing, creating and sharing.

By Naomi Elfred-Ross

Illustrations by Naomi Elfred-Ross, taken from ‘Goodbye Mama Cat’

Photographs of ‘Matchbox Stories’, by Naomi Elfred-Ross.


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