During the Summer I was awarded a development bursary from Unlimited. I used the development grant to buy a range of tools, supplies and aids to help me develop my oil painting practice. Some of the tools I bought were aimed at relieving barriers I face to painting due to my illness and disability whilst some were general art supplies. My general supplies included; brushes, canvases, oil painting paper, gesso primer, a palette knife and a book about oil painting called The Encyclopedia of Oil Painting.
To alleviate some of the barriers I face to painting I purchased a specialist easel, a glass palette which is easier to clean, a blade paint scraper to clean the palette with more easily, tube squeezers and zest it non toxic oil paint thinner.
The accessible easel I purchased is called the freasel from a charity called Demand. The freasel has a huge range of motion and allows me to paint lying down, reclining, sitting up and standing. This easel is ideal for my disability, as I am in the least amount of pain if I change my position frequently, I also often need to be lying down or reclined whilst working.
I wanted this period of development to be quite free and experimental, so I didn't plan on following a particular theme or direction. I did use photos from my life for inspiration, as well as Skillshare oil painting lessons and The Encyclopedia of Oil Techniques for guidance
Firstly I used the easel to paint several small rough pieces on paper to explore different styles, techniques and compositions.
Discussions below of surgery, serious illness, mental health crisis, death, grief, suicidal ideation.
I spent the rest of the time painting one large piece as seen below titled Buoyancy. This painting was a development of an area of creative research I keep returning to and that has run through a lot of my artwork since 2019 when I had my first neurosurgery. This area of research I sometimes refer to as 'the experience of my own death', 'the crisis heterotopia' or 'a feeling of extraordinary lightness'. I first wrote about this in my creative research for the In Transit residency in 2022.
In the years leading up to my first neurosurgery I had been extremely ill, I had received misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis, including a near fatal pulmonary embolism that was misdiagnosed as pleurisy in A&E. I had been accused of faking my illness, I had received some great treatment and some appalling, I had been told it was 'all in my head' and I had been left to slowly die of gastroparesis and severe cervical spine instability. Eventually through my own research and private consultations I had several new correct diagnoses, including a potential fatal rare complication that they would not treat on the NHS and I was offered palliative care. I had to fundraise £80,000 to go abroad for a neurosurgery, my incredible Catalan surgeon had told me that he was hopeful, but this was a very serious surgery and my family and I should be prepared for the worst. And that is what I did, I over-prepared. A part of me had been expecting to die and preparing to die since my near fatal pulmonary embolism in 2015.
For one blog post during the In Transit residency I wrote:
"In many different ways I prepared to die. People often assume that before this surgery I would have been nervous or scared, but the day before, the night before, the minutes before and even the seconds before being put under I was calm. I focused on the people around me. I enjoyed my partner’s company. I watched the doctors with their colourful scrub caps floating around from bed to bed as I waited in the pre-op room. I knew I had done everything within my power to prepare and the rest was out of my hands and I felt calm. I was not worried about the future, I was not thinking about all the things I needed to do, I did not feel responsible for anything, I actually can not remember ever feeling that calm before or since."
As someone with a history of trauma, who has been living in a state of constant crisis and survival for a very long time, preparing for the worst was something I am continuously doing. My preparation was so successful that I felt completely at peace prior to my surgery. I felt light. I felt calm. I was present in my body for the first time, in a very long time. After the surgery, we stayed close by to this hospital for a few months and I was living in a moment of true convalescence, family had given me enough money to not work during that period. I was near an incredible doctor who believed and understood my condition and my pain was well medicated for the first time in my decade of illness. A few months after I returned to the UK covid-19 happened, one of the most stressful periods of time for those of us with underlying conditions. I was also put into medically induced menopause around this time which has led to have a serious hormone related mental health crisis. I am sharing all of this to show the contrast between that feeling of calm, lightness and presence and the constant anxiety of what came next.
I keep returning to this time in my life in my creative work, a time I feel I need to understand better. I feel as though I became more comfortable with my morality during that time and I become close with my own death, as though my death is a person I can meet. In some ways I think that was a good experience, Western culture keeps death so far away from life and maybe getting to know our own death could benefit many of us. However, I also had multiple mental health crises following that time, related to covid, shielding, illness, lack of medical care, money, grief and hormonal imbalances following medical induced menopause.
But the mental health issues I have had following that, make me worry that I have become too comfortable with the idea of my death, as though I am wishing my life away or just treading water, waiting out my life, killing time.
Perhaps I am too scared to start planning for the future, to let myself believe I have. Perhaps I am still preparing for my own death as the disabled survivalist the last decade of my life has made me become. I know I am grieving for the life I will never have, the idea I had of my life before and the parts of me that have died along the way.
In the months after surgery, whilst I was recovering abroad, I had access to a swimming pool and as soon as my wound had healed enough I would float in the water most days. Floating in water has become something of a symbol for me, a symbol of that feeling of lightness and peace I felt. As when I float in water I am the closest I come to being out of pain, it's a time when I can be present in my body. Usually I am in constant, severe pain and I avoid being present, I try to distract myself from it, but in water I feel light. Even when I am floating in a very large full bath, I feel as though I can almost access that feeling again. This feeling of lightness, of buoyancy, of calm and the closeness I feel with my own death are areas I feel I need to explore further in my artwork.
Buoyancy, 2023 Oil on canvas 120cm x 91cm
During the development process of this painting I tried to document as much of the process as I could on film, which I intend to edit together in the future. For now I have created an instagram reel with some of the footage, which can be seen via this QR code.