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The Anxious Artist: The Inward Gaze Turns Outward

In my art practice, I have recently noticed that I have become aware of the need to turn my gaze to the world around me and less towards that within. I notice some anxiety when I make attempts to work using myself as subject matter. I don’t know if this is because I am feeling particularly unsettled, or if I have reached a point (for now, at least) where this is no longer necessary. So much of my work has been the exploration of how I can visually express the periods of trauma in my life, which have disquieted my unconscious mind, affecting my life in so many ways. Working visually has enabled me to develop a language for all of this, where words have failed me and for this I am so grateful. I have also been grateful to artists who share so much of themselves, as they have mirrored something of my own experience. I have previously written of my interest and admiration for artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Tracy Emin, whose use of themselves as subject matter has enabled so many artists to do the same, without fear of being accused of being self-indulgent.

This Was The Beginning, 2020

I think it understandable, perhaps, that I need a bit of a break from introspection and self-examination. Mindful of this, I have been reflecting on the many years I have found myself in contact with a variety of clinicians and therapists. In these different relationships there has been a need to continually repeat and retell a narrative of what is ‘wrong’ with me, to enable access to the treatment I have needed. Although it is not the intention, this can feel detrimental as it can hardwire a narrative of sickness. I’ve found, at times, I have forgotten other truths about my life and identity; the places from which I draw strength and resilience. I have worked hard to resist overidentifying with any diagnostic label I have been given.

As I have historically worked as a mental health nurse, I am aware that great efforts are made by the clinician to avoid working in too much of a problem focused way, for this very reason. However, the pressures that the NHS is under means that staff turnover is very high and so it is impossible to establish a relationship that ventures beyond addressing symptoms and periods of crisis. The capacity for a nourishing and strengths focused therapeutic relationship is all but lost and so it falls on the shoulders of the individual and whatever support network they may or may not have to find their way through.

Self Portrait, Naomi Elfred-Ross

I have been in the position recently of needing to retell my story to a new mental health worker, although my willingness to do so is greatly diminished (perhaps a healthy sign). This sounds rather negative and it is not my intention to criticise any of the individual MH professionals I have met on my journey. On the whole, they have evidently made every effort with their power to give me the help I need and they are as much a victim of the system as I am.

As you can imagine, or may relate to, all of this self-inquiry and introspection, predominantly focused on what parts of myself are ‘broken’, gets a bit exhausting. I am unconsciously choosing to replenish my reserves by becoming more aware of the world around me.Yes, we live in difficult times and there’s no short of stresses to be found, which can easily force one to panic and withdraw. However, I’m talking about the life affirming world around me. I’m talking about nature, art, faith, friendship; whatever it is that gives me the strength to keep moving forwards. I want to make and be in contact with art that is most interested in the joy and beauty that can be found in inhabiting this complex and fascinating world.

Of course, there is always going to be an element of subjectivity in the art I make, as I made it. Equally, whoever looks at my art will look upon it from their own subjective perspective. It’s just I am choosing to explore my experience of the beauty of colour and the childlike wonder of gazing upon the sea. I thought I had finished with my Dungeness project, but there’s more to come!

Surely for all his inner turmoil, Van Gogh used painting to celebrate what gave him joy. We might see clues of what was happening in his inner world in some of his paintings, this is inevitable; his brushstrokes and palette being so expressive. There are also numerous self-portraits, but these primarily were painted because he wanted to practice painting people.

Harvest, 1889. Vincent Van-Gogh.

I recently went to an exhibition at the Royal Academy of works by American Colourist, Milton Avery. I hadn’t heard of him before, but now his colourful landscapes and abstracts are doing somersaults in my mind.

Beginning his artistic career in the 1930s, he fell between the American Impressionist and Abstract Expressionist movements, so he had to forge his own path. Avery’s work focused mainly on scenes from daily life, including portraits of his loved ones and serene landscapes from visits to Cape Cod in Maine. His use of colour and light was a major influence on the generation to come. Mark Rothko described how Avery’s work celebrated the world around him with poetry that ‘penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush.’

I recall arriving at the exhibition feeling somewhat harassed by the usual throng of Piccadilly. Yet by looking upon his paintings I became aware of a sense of space and tranquillity in my mind. As I allowed his joyful reverie in the harmony of colour, my shoulders dropped. I felt as though I had arrived home. His painting style had been compared to Matisse displayed an ability to simplify forms so that they perfectly captured the beauty of the world he saw and its inhabitants. Towards the end of his career he erred towards abstraction, so it is clear to see why he was held in such high regard by young artists of the time. Art historian Barbara Haskell said that his later work ‘more than ever, exuded a world of low-key emotions from which anger and anxiety were absent.’ Exactly the tonic I need(ed).

Little Fox River, 1942. Milton Avery

Two Figures on Beach, 1950. Milton Avery.

Boathouse by the Sea, 1959. Milton Avery.

Beach Blanket, 1960. Milton Avery

I can think of lots of other artists who are primarily interested in and fascinated by the beauty of the world around them and the simple joy of being alive. The St Ives’ School springs to mind, which was of a similar era to Avery. What artist wouldn’t be mesmerized by the natural physical forms and quality of light, unique to that special seaside town? But that is for another blog in the future. For now, I am going to enjoy myself, creatively exploring the things in life that keep me going. Looking outwards and nourishing my soul.

By Naomi Elfred-Ross

Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald. 1950, by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.

Kent Coastal Path. Monotype screen print. (Work in progress). Naomi Elfred-Ross


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