The foundation for self-expression began during a moment of consciousness in intensive care while attempting to translate my surreal physical sensations into comprehensible dialogue. I felt isolated with my experience... the doctors and nurses were focused on healing my wounds, friends and family prayed that I might have the strength to deal with the strong possibility of life with severe paralysis.
With every failed attempt to articulate the morphing sensations of paralysis, I became increasingly frustrated and declared "I will paint these sensations"… though at that time I was completely paralysed below the shoulders.
Could I paint before the injury'?
Growing up, I spent many happy hours drawing planes and tanks, later copying pictures in detail which increased my techniques with a pencil. Leaving school without formal qualifications, I found work in printing studios producing designs, print ready artwork and colour separations for furnishing fabrics (right), advertising, T-shirts and billboard posters. In the process gaining knowledge and practical experience screen printing from 5 colour carousel to 13 colour flat-bed zimmers. In my spare time I turned my hand to miniature watercolour portraits (right), sign writing and repro-graphic darkroom techniques using industrial cameras.
Both my hands are completely paralysed - so how do I paint?
I have had to adapt to hold a brush in my left hand as I have slightly better movement in my left arm along with sensation in my left index finger and thumb [above]. However, I am still right-handed for sketching with the aid of a pencil holder that slots onto my index finger and thumb [below], and using both hands for stability.
To pick up a paint brush, I tense the muscles in my forearm to lift my hand backward, in turn causing my index finger and thumb to move together and make a light grip. This is called a 'passive tenodesis grip' [above].
First attempt to draw 2-week after injury
Unaware how to communicate a traumatic experience, I enrolled on an A-level art course at College. According to my tutors ‘I was angry'… I was frustrated! Fortunately, I was lucky to have understanding tutors, extremely supportive in my development, giving me invaluable guidance on my journey of discovery and self-expression through art.
College tutor Mandi Grant suggested I research and explore the works of Frida Kahlo. It was just what I needed... Kahlo's use of imagery and metaphors conveyed her experience of trauma and suffering which resonated with images I had flashing through my mind.
# Mandi Grant, Alan & Gail Chadderton, technician Gary Jones
The pinnacle of education
Passing A-level art filled me with the confidence I needed as an adult learner and eager to further my studies with a Diploma in Foundation Art & Design. I passed with a distinction and continued education at University studying Art & Design BA (Hons). I found the course challenging at first as the use of paint was discouraged, painting was my passion and the most accessible media. Fortuitously, it encouraged me to explore other media such as, film and photography, computer generated imagery as well as develop a better understanding of contemporary art practice.
Throughout college and university, I continued producing artwork reflecting my experience of paralysis. Eventually, I began to realise the therapeutic benefits of self-expression through art, the process certainly helped externalise my traumatic experience. Thereafter, I began studies on a master’s degree in Art Psychotherapy and graduated in 2010.
In 1927 Kahlo was seriously injured in a trolley bus crash breaking her lower back and hip, temporally paralysing her below the waist. Although she managed to walk again, her life was marred with prolonged suffering both from the trauma of injury and childhood polio.
We all have unique perceptions of what we like, and dislike. A piece of art, whether painting, sculpture or building can be viewed differently from one person to the next. The ‘Broken column’ by Frida Kahlo is interpreted by art historians very differently to what I see, but I doubt they understood what it feels like to be paralysed!
The Broken Column spoke volumes to me, the bizarre metaphoric imagery conveyed the surreal sensations I identified with, along with part naked body and ripped open torso exposing both internal and external pain.
I felt compelled to copy her painting just as artists before me copied the master’s through history. Recreating Kahlo’s work, the application of paint; colour and texture felt uncomfortable, yet I can only speculate whether it was transferred intentionally. Copying Kahlo's work enabled me compose ‘Feeling, Sensation’, my first attempt to externalise my personal sensory experience... my journey had begun!
Broken column - Frida Kahlo