Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists

Wellcome Trust Arts Award 2009

Archive for August 2010

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Gemma Anderson discusses her project ‘Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists’

The roots of my project ‘Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists; began in June 2007, arising out of contacts made from my MA exhibition at the Royal College of Art, London. I presented a series of etched portraits that referred to the pseudo-scientific theories of physiognomy, phrenology and the ‘doctrine of signatures’. These works came to the attention of forensic psychiatrist Tim McInerny and the curator Sarah Williams.

The following April, I was invited by Sarah Williams on the strength of my MA work to participate in an exhibition she was curating for the Jerwood space in London entitled ‘An experiment in Collaboration’. By this time I had returned to Belfast and was based at Queen Street Studios. This invitation by Sarah prompted me to start working on a series of portraits of staff and patients at Knockbracken Hospital in Belfast. With the Jerwood exhibition coming up, I made contact again with Tim, who facilitated my access to make similar works at Bethllem Hospital in London. My contribution to the Jerwood show, which ran during July 2008 showed the first four in the series of this body of work.

I had become especially interested in working on portraits of psychiatric patients, as my grandmother had spent a period in a psychiatric hospital in 2004. Deeply aware of how her identity was diminished by the language of the medical institution, I witnessed how its vocabulary failed to express the history and story of the individual I loved and knew so well.

I received a very positive response to this exhibition, which encouraged me to apply for a Wellcome Trust Arts Award – for arts and health initiatives – in order to further develop the work I had begun with Tim at Bethllem Hospital under the title ‘Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists’. Specifically, I applied for a project that would commence in August 2009. I was successful and received an award of £20,910 for the project, which comprised overall of the production of a series life-size etched portraits of a variety of psychiatric patients and psychiatrists at Bethlem Royal Hospital, London; a blog documenting work on the project, exhibitions and accompanying talks on the project as well a paperback publication, produced in conjunction with the Bethlem Royal Hospital and available at all exhibiting venues.

Before commencing the project Tim McInerny recruited a number of willing psychiatrists, who could be of assistance in identifying patients and doctors who would enthusiastic to take part. For the success of this project it would be vital that the doctors and patients involved had good working relationships. Although the project was based at Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham, I also drew individuals at their homes in Hammersmith, Hampstead and Homerton; at a boys’ school in Brentford and at other NHS units – Kentish Town Community Mental Health Centre and the Maudsley Hospital in Denmark Hill.

Such drawing from life requires trusting relationships with individuals and institutions – and it was a challenging experience full of learning and discovery. Each individual led me on a search. Sometimes I drew their personal possessions, but as the project evolved I was drawn to the animals, plants and other objects at the Royal College of Physicians, Kew Gardens and University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology, Rock Room and Human Anatomy Room.

Sometimes I drew personal objects from an individual’s home that they had brought with them – or I borrowed these objects to draw them in my studio. The other imagery that I used – plants, minerals and animals – was included in the portraits as a reference to how these were historically used to treat the individuals medical condition; as well as these being objects and things that the individual had a personal association with.

Another key element of the project was forming trusting working relationships with institutions – collections and museums. I arranged appointments to draw at the Royal College of Physicians, the Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London’s rock and anatomy rooms. In all these places I was given a desk space to draw at; as well as this I could request specific items that I wanted to draw from their collections.

My overall aim was to try to represent the people involved in this project in a multi-faceted way – depicting their histories, medicines, interests and emotional worlds. The greatest privilege for me was being able to meet each person, hear their story and experience their environment. Essential to this was learning about the perspective of both patient and psychiatrist.

In order to learn as much as possible about each individual, I was allowed access to the wards where the patients and psychiatrists worked. I spent time interviewing and developing ideas for the portraits with each individual before drawing them. I was invited to attend lectures at the institute of psychiatry, which helped me gain insight into the contemporary research and concerns of the psychiatrists and hospital staff. I also spent time with the clinical team on ward rounds during which I learnt about the practical problems both the doctors and patients experienced within the hospital environment.

As there where 16 individuals involved in this project, I spent a lot of time organizing meetings with each person. I was nervous at first as I began working with the forensic ward, I had never met anybody who had committed murder and I wasn’t sure how I would feel in the actual scenario. This was one of the most rewarding experiences of the whole project for me; as I found my initial feelings of fear and anxiety transformed into feelings of compassion and sympathy as I heard the individuals personal story and spent time talking to them.

I asked each person to allow four hours for our appointment. Before each meeting I emailed each person a list of questions, I wanted them to think about beforehand. Questions like “why did you become a psychiatrist”; “can you tell me about your relationship with your psychiatrist / fellow patients”. I also asked everyone what if anything they had in common with their doctor / patient. This was a particularly interesting question, as sometimes we discovered common ground that was previously unknown – for example a doctor and a former Michelin star chef patient, shared a love of cooking fish.

It was harder to make appointments to interview and draw the psychiatrists than the patients, simply because of their workload. This made me really appreciate the value of spending so much time with each patient. Our conversations could expand and explore ideas and subjects of interest. For example one patient disclosed information to me that was very significant, which he had not discussed with his psychiatrist.

After the interview we had a break, I would make notes of initial ideas and then we begin the drawing. I ask each person to sit comfortably, choose a point to focus their eyes on and to stay as still as possible. Most people find the experience of being drawn relaxing, so much so that some fall asleep during the sitting! One patient I drew had ADHD and said he was worried about being able to sit still for an hour and a half – as he had never been still for this long before. I asked him what he would do with the portrait when I gave it to him; and he said he wanted to give it to his mum. I said that if he could try his best to sit still the portrait was more likely to look like him and miraculously he stayed perfectly still for the entire time I drew.

On average the drawing took between one and two hours depending on the individual. When I had finished the drawing, myself and the sitter looked at it together and discussed ideas for the additional elements that could be woven into the portrait. Sometimes people were happy enough for me to make the decisions and other times they had specific requests, – for example a forensic patient asked me to include symbols he had drawn into his portrait.

To the general public the individuals within psychiatric hospitals are invisible and to some extent stigmatised. As Tim McInerny wrote in the publication for the project  “In the 1960s the anti-psychiatry movement, as championed by Michel Foucault and psychiatrist R. D. Laing, accused psychiatric practice of social control, promoting stigmatization and of incarcerating the mentally well in asylums for reasons unrelated to their health. In western countries, this ultimately led to the development of care in the community, closure of asylums and the return of psychiatry and patients to society. The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen something of a reversal of such emancipation. Increasingly, fear of psychiatric patients and their association with a potential risk of violence is fed by tabloid hysteria.”

The aim of  ‘Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists’ was to allow the general public to encounter and better understand psychiatric patients and individuals, while still protecting their privacy and maintaining anonymity. Furthermore, I used pseudonyms for the identities of both the doctors and the patients– they are all seen equally and as individuals rather than people branded by their profession or medical condition. ‘Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists’ was part of my ongoing interest in the history of medicine, comparative anatomy and the potential of the portrait as a form of empowering the individual.

Gemma Anderson



‘Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists’ was exhibited at the Freud Museum, London (5 July 2010 – 22 August 2010); the The Globe Theatre, London during September; ACME Project Space, London in November. The exhibition will be show at Naughton Gallery, Queens University, Belfast in May / June 2011.

Written by gemmaanderson

03/08/2010 at 7:43 pm

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