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The Anxious Artist Seeks To Tell The Truth About Mental Health

Updated: Dec 16, 2023

Hilma Af Klint. ‘The Ten Largest, Group IV No.2, Childhood’ (1907). Tempera on paper, mounted on canvas.

Perhaps it is related to my trauma therapy, which is bringing a new level of awareness for me; but I am noticing that I channel a huge amount of energy into hiding my struggles with mental health. The parts of myself that I think are unacceptable, of which I fear there are many. This awareness has led me to wish to be alone, as I find I no longer have the energy, or interest in pretending. I find I cannot face the possibility of being judged and rejected, as the fragmented parts of myself are undergoing repair and reconfiguration. I am not entirely sure what ‘not hiding’ will actually look like just yet, so I think there is also the necessity to allow space to develop some clarity. So, I can therefore step out into the world with a clearly defined sense of self and the confidence to hold my head up high as I do so. As I begin to realise I have been wrapping my feelings up from a very young age, it does feel quite daunting to consider opening everything up and letting it out. However, I have to invest my trust in the therapeutic process that the feared explosion will be a controlled one, but hopefully a huge relief.

I think it is all too common for those who have suffered with their mental health to feel the need to hide themselves away, with a sense of profound and unjust shame. This is due to the, often traumatic, experiences that might lead somebody to become unwell, which is then compounded by the stigma that is attached to any mental health diagnosis. Many may argue that we have moved on and that mental health is now discussed more openly and this is true, but what I find is that the things that are talked about are often sugar coated. For some reason, there always has to be a happy ending, a triumph over adversity. Yet, surely we know that life just isn’t like that. Life is messy and so is mental illness. We do not all come out smelling of roses, running marathons, or writing books. For some people (and I include myself), mental illness is a daily struggle and the triumphs and achievements include things like getting out of bed and brushing your teeth. I think there is also an issue in labelling any person with these struggles as mentally ill, because I think it is our society that is sick. The label suggests an element of blame and personal responsibility, left at the door of the very person who has been persecuted enough, through their life experiences and this is not acceptable. I wonder when it will be accepted that we all have a responsibility to change attitudes towards mental health and that victim blaming must stop?

When I reflect on the blogs I have written so far, I am aware that I myself have been trying to make the important things I am trying to communicate, digestible. Yet, why do I sit here with chronic acid reflux, my stomach rejecting anything but the most innocuous and plain kind of nourishment? The kinds of things I am trying to talk about are not digestible and there is no way of dressing them up otherwise. I feel as though as soon as I think I have said something challenging, I need to follow this immediately with something to make it better. So, my readers come away believing that things regarding mental health might be bad, but they are not that bad. In writing in this way, I let myself down and I let too many others whose problems are just too gritty to be wrapped in pretty paper and tied with a bow. We are in a mental health pandemic, where support services are on their knees and where ’help’ often ends up being abusive, because hospital wards are too often more like prisons and staffed by jailers, than places of healing.

I feel very stirred up as I write this and know this is because I am telling the truth and speaking to my own experiences. As I am in the midst of, what I hope to be, the healing process of therapy, I do not feel able to say any more. I feel it is my creativity, as ever, that speaks most honestly to my unconscious processes. I can’t always pretend to understand what is happening here; but I think I am noticing (as I have written before) a desire to explore the possibilities of expressing my true self in my art and making art for myself, not to please others. Of course, there will always be a desire to please, but what is important is the awareness of primarily making art that meets my own needs and this being the template by which I then may learn to live my life. I may end up upsetting some people, but this is unfortunately inevitable.

Most recent Dungeness mono-screenprints, yet to be named, by Naomi Elfred-Ross.

Nature remains my place of safety, where I feel firmly rooted and accepted (perhaps even vital), as something much bigger than myself. I continue to draw inspiration from the magical Dungeness and make screen prints that help to hardwire that subliminal experience into my psyche. I am drawn to artists who celebrate the natural world. as these are works I find utterly joyful and spiritually profound and speak to an innate need within me. I have recently seen exhibitions of paintings by Hilma Af Klint (Tate Modern) and Sky Glabush (Stephen Friedman Gallery). I don’t intend to write a critique of their work, that is not the purpose of this blog (perhaps some other time), but just to share that these artists have had a huge impact on me and I am so grateful to them for that. I urge you to go and see their work, if you can.

Sky Glabush, ‘Gash Gold-Vermillion’ (2023). Oil and sand on Canvas.

Hilma Af Klint.’The Ten Largest, GroupIV No. 3. Youth’ (1907). Tempera on paper, mounted on canvas.

Meanwhile, I am involved in an exhibition that marks Mental Health Awareness week, called ‘Inside Out’, at Core Arts in Hackney. It is a one night only event and combines the artwork of members of Core Arts, a community arts and mental health project (we need more of these) and the Royal College of Art students. This is eleventh hour short notice, as I have only just discovered the spoons to write this blog, but do go along tomorrow evening, from 6-9.30pm, if you can. Show your support in some way this week and every single week of every year, in creating a world where difference is celebrated and where the vulnerable are embraced and not rejected and blamed. Open your minds to things you may rather not think about, some people have no choice. I am not asking for your pity here, make no mistake. Everyone has a responsibility in bringing about this essential and long overdue change.

By Naomi Elfred-Ross

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Well said

Naomi Elfred-Ross
Naomi Elfred-Ross
May 14, 2023
Replying to

Thank you. There’s so much more that needs to be said, but I think I’ll have to pace myself!

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