A picture tells a thousand words

Taken from a piece written for thepolyphony.org a medical humanities website.

As his exhibition The Twisted Rose and Other Lives tours the UK, artist Andy Farr talks about painting people affected by PTSD.

For the last year I have been painting people who are recovering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]. The resulting exhibition, The Twisted Rose and other Lives, was first exhibited at the Institute of Mental Health, Nottingham (IMH) in 2018 and subsequently Coventry, London, and Newcastle before its scheduled close in Lancaster in autumn 2019.

Each painting was the result of conversations with someone who has lived experience of PTS. As an artist the focus for that dialogue was very different to that with a medical professional. I did not want to focus on the trauma itself, but rather on the emotions and feelings their experience had evoked. Out of each conversation ideas for metaphors or ways of expressing their story started to emerge, and my usual artistic process of seeking images, colours, and textures took over.

For several of the paintings the decision to be “in” the picture wasn’t always easy. The final step of “coming out” in public about their mental health, was a significant one. Adam, a paramedic, thought long and hard about going public, ultimately deciding that it was important to do so.

The Man Inside.jpg

The man Inside

“… a by-product of being in the Emergency Services is exposure to trauma which in turn may lead to [poor] mental health. I have had too many crewmates and colleagues take their own lives for often reasons unknown. People who you wouldn’t think had mental health problems, who appeared outwardly confident but mentally must have struggled with no support. I don’t want to see that happen to anyone again and I’m hoping by myself speaking out will encourage others to do so also.”

The degree of responsibility felt by me, the artist, to the person I’m painting is huge. I have never before felt the same level of trepidation when sending or showing the first version of a painting to someone as I have during this project. The responses have been deeply moving.

At the start of the project I had assumed the primary audience would be the wider public: I was hoping that showing what it is like to suffer and, more importantly recover, from mental health problems would help to raise awareness and consciousness of the issues surrounding trauma.

The response from the public has been highly positive. Adam’s painting and associated story have featured in the internal paramedic’s newsletter and some of those visiting the exhibitions have been powerfully moved, as demonstrated by this email I received from a visitor to the Coventry show:



“I looked at the paintings first, before reading the guide. I was struck first by ‘Invitation’ – as someone who comes across as extrovert but suffers from anxiety, your painting struck a nerve…. I then picked up the guide and viewed the paintings again. That’s when I found ‘Daylight’.  Oh boy. If I thought ‘Invitation’ struck a nerve, then that was nothing against reading of Mark’s experience.  I don’t have personal experience of abuse like Mark, but I do understand that thought that somehow putting things into a mental box is going to solve the problem. … Your work has really touched me today …”

As the project progressed, it became clear to me that the most important audience for this work was the subjects of the paintings themselves. The first painting I finished was Invitation, based on Rachel’s experience of birth trauma:

I cried! the colours are perfect. The me looking round the corner completely sums up that feeling of lost in the grey world feeling frightened of everything. Welcoming Rachel is the old me too. It’s like you looked in my head and painted. It’s honestly amazing.

I went to bed thinking about the painting and it’s almost like now there is a third Rachel. The one I am now who is able to connect with both the figures in the painting. Which is really nice.”

Invitation (Rachel’s painting). © Andy Farr

So why did this work have such powerful effects? What learnings can be drawn from the responses? Based on my own reflections and conversations with those involved with the work, both participants and mental health practitioners, I arrived at four broad themes: the power of storytelling; being listened to; the role of metaphor; and a rather more nebulous sense that having something in public may have a positive impact.

Each of the paintings created is a form of narrative. As Stephen Joseph (2011) says “we human beings are story tellers. Trauma triggers within us the need to tell stories to make sense of what has happened. Books, songs, poetry and art can provide us with the “language” to capture what we are experiencing. It is in the struggle to make sense of a traumatic event that recovery and growth happen.”

In contrast, Marissa Lambert (formerly peer-support lead for the Institute of Mental Health, Nottingham) has strong feelings about the way in which narratives are shared within a traditional therapy setting, and why this can become a negative process:

“People are forced to repeatedly recount their own experiences as part clinical assessments. A situation in which a person’s freedom to disclose is contingent upon the individual’s power, status and position. It can be re-traumatising for people to simply tell and re-tell an account of loss or trauma – become stuck in that negative feedback loop.”

So perhaps working with an artist rather than a “doctor” allowed participants to think about their story in a different way. Additionally, being an “outsider”, the process was “non-judgemental”.

Each painting reflects the participant’s personal story, but the emphasis on feelings and emotions, rather than events, gave participants the opportunity to focus on the narrative in a different, perhaps more metaphorical ways.

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The Twisted Rose

Through my dialogue with each participant I was looking for a metaphor that would capture the essence of their story. The title piece for the exhibition was inspired by “Mac’s” story. Mac suffered childhood abuse, and toward the end of his therapy described himself as feeling like “A twisted rose, growing out of the dark into the light, but still carrying the scars of his past”.  As Moon (2007) notes, “artistic metaphors invite us to look at, listen to, and respond to them, and wonder about their meanings.  Rather than assigning fixed interpretations.” This metaphor seems to sum up much about PTSD and recovery. The past cannot be undone or erased from the memory, but it is possible for people to learn to accept and give meaning to their experiences, and ultimately start to recover and grow.

There is one final strand that seems also to be significant. Susana, one of the participants, shared with me a passage written by Soren Kierkegaard:

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”

I wonder if part of the reason for the positive response to the work from stemmed from a need to have their stories made public. To reclaim their experiences for themselves.

The final scheduled exhibition of the Twisted Rose paintings will be at Lancaster City Museum, from 19th September to 3rd November 2019. Andy is interested in working with anyone who would like to explore further the healing power of “having your story told”. From November 2019 many of the paintings will be available for further exhibition.

Curating Coventry - Artist Spotlight

Based on content featured on Curating Coventry, Feb 18th 2019

Warwickshire-based artist Andy Farr has been working with the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham on a moving project which documents a number of individual’s experience of PTSD. The series of paintings created during this project will be on display at the Lanchester Gallery from 7th March – 5th April. We’ve interviewed Andy ahead of his solo show to find out more about him as an artist, and what inspired him to create this thought-provoking body of work.


(Image by John Whitmore).

When did you first get into Art Andy?

Good question. Art was always my passion growing up, but then school talked me out of doing A-Level and my path went in other directions until just over 10 years ago. Both my sons are good artists and their passion drew me back in. About a year later I was seriously ill and while in hospital decided that if I survived that commuting down to London wasn’t how I saw my future. After six months recovery I handed my notice in and to be honest I wasn’t quite sure how the future would pan out. Fortunately, I met a wonderful artist called Caroline Hulse who ran painting courses. She must have seen something in my early daubs as she acted as my mentor over my first summer of my second life. Encouraging me to be more experimental and bold. At that point I assumed that I would at some point return to the world of marketing but ten years later I am very much a full-time artist.


Tell us how you came to work on the project for your forthcoming solo show “The Twisted Rose and Other Lives” which explores post-traumatic stress and the process of recovery.

The Twisted Rose project evolved out of the work I did for my MA. I used the MA as an opportunity to look back and try to make sense of events from my own childhood. My father was bipolar, and it is only recently that I’ve come to realise how profoundly his illness impacted my own being. I found that process to be cathartic and came to realise that the works resonated with others who had had direct experience of mental issues. The actual idea of working with people who have experienced PTSD came from Gary Winslip one of the lecturers at the IMH (Institute of Mental Health) in Nottingham. He connected the dots between an earlier project I’d done commemorating WW1 and my interest in mental health. One of the legacies of the War was many thousands left suffering from with what was then called “shell shock”, what we now term post-traumatic stress disorder. With the promise of exhibition space from the IMH, Coventry University and Lancashire County Council I was able to secure some Arts Council Funding.

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What process do you go through when you are creating a new piece of work?

For this project my process has had to change radically. Each painting has to be created in a way that respects the feelings and vulnerabilities of the subject. The start point has been a dialogue with the person whose experience I’m conveying. That discussion is focussed on how the emotions and feelings that their experience has evoked rather than the details of the traumatic event. That conversation might be over several months via email, or face to face, or both. From that dialogue ideas for metaphors or ways of expressing their story will start to emerge. From there my usual process of seeking images, colours, textures will start to take over. For several of the paintings the person has agreed to be photographed and the resultant image could be described as a “narrative portrait”. This final step of being present in a painting, and then being in public, is a significant one and so far proved to be cathartic for those involved. Unlike other paintings the degree of responsibility felt by me, the artist, to the person I’m painting is huge. I have never felt the same level of trepidation, as I have during this project, when sending or showing the first version of a painting to someone before. So far the responses have not just been positive but deeply moving as well.


Have you been inspired by any other artists in the past?

I’m a fan of painters whose work has an underlying narrative. From Hopper through to Justin Mortimer and a number of Eastern European artists such as Daniel Pitin and Miriam Vlaming. I like their combination of figurative elements with more abstract mark making.


What’s next for you as an artist following your show at the Lanchester Gallery?The Lanchester Exhibition will be followed by four more shows of this work, two in London, the first straight after Coventry in April, and then Newcastle in May/June and Lancaster in October/November. For the Lancaster show I’ll be working with more people to add additional works to the exhibition. The second London show will be broader encompassing some of my earlier work as well. If more opportunities arise then the work might pop up elsewhere as well! I’m also starting to do some work with psychotherapists to see if there is learning from my work that can be used more widely within therapy. Provisionally we have a cross disciplinary seminar planned for Coventry later in March. However, I am also looking forward to doing some less intense subject matter … I have some ideas but they won’t crystalise until I’ve finished working on the four new painting for the Coventry Exhibition.

Where can people go to find out more about you and your work?

To find out more about my work people can go to my website www.andyfarr.com which has a lot of background to my work. I also post work in progress on Instagram @andyfarrart

The Twisted Rose and other Lives

I have been working with the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham for six months to create a series of paintings that will help people to understand post-traumatic stress. Each painting is based on a personal account of the impact of trauma on someone’s life. The paintings show how people can grow during their recovery, show the feelings that trauma can create.

The first exhibition of paintings will be exhibited at the IMH in Nottingham from 10th October until 4th March 2019, before moving to Coventry, Newcastle and Lancaster, and maybe more venues.

This work will also feed into the IMH’s “Arts and Trauma project”. This will provide a multi-disciplinary and creative platform to raise awareness, and new knowledge, on issues surrounding trauma. Investigating a wide range of trauma, from birth to war trauma, this is a rare opportunity to reflect and gain new insights on trauma studies and the therapeutic role of the arts.

The Project is supported by Arts Council England and the IMH

Examples of paintings from the exhibition:


“  Twisted Rose  ” was inspired by “Mac” story. He suffered childhood abuse, and after therapy describes himself as feeling like a twisted rose, growing out of the dark into the light, but still carrying the scars of his past.

Twisted Rose” was inspired by “Mac” story. He suffered childhood abuse, and after therapy describes himself as feeling like a twisted rose, growing out of the dark into the light, but still carrying the scars of his past.

“  Burning Brighter  ” tells Danny’s story. His recovery from PTSD inspired his song writing. As he says: “The illness that had smashed me to pieces, the horror that had me fighting for air, isolated and trapped behind an ice wall now enabled me to see the world with growing clarity … Colours burned brighter, orchestras played in my head. I felt so alive … Songs poured out of me”. Danny McNamara is lead singer of the band Embrace.

Burning Brighter” tells Danny’s story. His recovery from PTSD inspired his song writing. As he says: “The illness that had smashed me to pieces, the horror that had me fighting for air, isolated and trapped behind an ice wall now enabled me to see the world with growing clarity … Colours burned brighter, orchestras played in my head. I felt so alive … Songs poured out of me”. Danny McNamara is lead singer of the band Embrace.



Invisible Screams

I became interested in post-traumatic stress after finishing my MA. My own experiences growing up were much less severe than those who have suffered abuse or been involved in conflict, none the less it had a profound impact on my life.

PTSD can start after ANY traumatic event, where you are in danger, your life is threatened, or where you see other people dying or being injured. The condition was first recognised in war veterans and has been known by a variety of names, such as 'shell shock'. But it's not only diagnosed in soldiers – a wide range of traumatic experiences can cause PTSD. BUT on average it is 16 years between the trauma and seeking help. None of us like to talk about upsetting events and feelings.

  • We don't want to be thought of as weak or mentally unstable.
  • We may feel uncomfortable if we try to talk about gruesome or horrifying events.
  • People with PTSD often find it easier to talk about the other problems that go along with it - headache, sleep problems, irritability, depression, tension, substance abuse, family or work-related problems.

I think Art can help to break down some of these barriers. For the next 6 months I will be working with the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham to create a series of paintings that bring to life all aspects of trauma response. This work will be exhibited from September 2018 at the IMH and then other locations in 2019. I will be working with accounts of trauma from a wide spectrum of sources; abuse, birth, accident and conflict etc. Some will be based on existing personal accounts from past therapy and some from talking directly with people to understand their experiences. 

My hope is that the exhibition of moving and thought-provoking depictions of what it is like to suffer and recover from mental health problems will raise awareness and consciousness of the issues surrounding trauma. Providing new insights into people’s experience of a wide range of types of suffering from birth trauma to war trauma. As well providing potentially positive therapeutic outcomes for those directly involved.


The Visitor

When I was 13 I entered a mental hospital for the first time to visit my father. He was suffering from his first major bout of mania, and about to start a life long dance with bipolar disorder and the cocktail of drugs that run alongside.

That is over 40 years ago, but I still remember the eerie feeling of walking through the corridors. A feeling of trepidation and unease mixed with something of the voyeur's gaze. The over ridding memory is of the unblinking stares that I received as I entered the day room.

I am seeking to capture something of that feeling in my next painting, a mashup of imagery - a day ward, 1970s wallpaper, and a happy family playing cards...

This is a detail from that painting



Twin Poles

My father developed bipolar disorder when I was about 12. At the time I never really understood how he felt, only the impact his behaviour had upon my mother and I guess myself. He lived with the disorder for thirty years dosed up on lithium and other products until he passed a few years ago. I have looked over my shoulder wondering if it was to be my destiny also, but so far, I seem to have avoided that fate. He never really talked about how it felt during the mania or depression. I’ve talked with a number of people who are bipolar, and I am starting to understand more about the euphoria of the mania as well as the sheer despair of the downs.

Art, music and poetry all have the ability to communicate thoughts and feelings that might be hard for people to express or understand. Over the past few months I have been exploring through my paintings how it feels to have bipolar disorder.

I am now looking to creating e a series of paintings based on people's direct experience of the ups and downs. I have set up a Facebook page where people can share a photograph, either of themselves or an image,  or a sentence, that encapsulates the feelings during the manic and the depressed phases of their bipolar phases. These will be used in two ways, firstly to create an installation made up of the actual words and images and secondly to inspire "two faceted" paintings that include the two aspects of the disorder.