Mental Health & Wellbeing

Art Therapy

26th February 2024 Estimated reading time: 6 mins

Passionate SAA workshop attendee Louise Kirk-Spencer shares her experience of the mental benefits of art.

As a sufferer of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), I nearly dropped my paintbrush after reading Issy Coe’s article in the May 2019 issue of Paint magazine. She was talking about one of her students, who has ME and found painting very therapeutic (read the original article at: saa.co.uk/arthealing). ME is a post-viral condition most people are unaware of, and I got my diagnosis in 2013 after years of tests to rule out other conditions. To this day, the older medical profession refuses to acknowledge this condition, which is strange as sufferers can’t give blood so it must be recognised somewhere along the line.

I had to finish work, I could no longer run marathons and it took two years of counselling to finally accept who I was now. I’ve also recently been diagnosed with ADHD which was a shock, and I wondered why I was able to sit and concentrate all day on one thing. It was explained to me that when sufferers find a subject they are really interested in, their mind can tune out all the noise and chaos in the background. It is quite normal for people with ADHD to become obsessed with specific hobbies and end up buying all the materials (as I have) for one medium, then move on to the next. I say, “I’ve got all the gear but no idea”, and I’ve tried to learn from books in the past but failed miserably because reading tires my eyes and brain, and I tend to get disheartened and stay in bed for a few days.

I stumbled across the SAA by accident while making a card. I needed some red card, and as I live in Elston, my Google search came up with the SAA, which is only 10 minutes from my house. When I arrived, I saw all the art materials and books and was immediately hooked. So much so that I joined up for membership there and then after seeing all the benefits included, especially the discounts for members and the access to all the online content.

“I found it hard to concentrate on using all the different mediums in this Jane
Betteridge ‘Sloe berries’ painting”

On receipt of my first Paint magazine, I saw the workshops at the back. At first, I was worried that everybody attending would be experienced artists and I would be sat at the back, not being able to keep up. Of course, I was over the moon after attending my first one to find that the other attendees were of all ages and abilities. I came away at the end of the day with a finished painting (not a Monet or Picasso), having thoroughly enjoyed meeting new people in relaxed surroundings and with free refreshments to boot. The artist’s instructions were amazing, interacting with everybody, and encouraging, which boosted my confidence. It was then that I realised the effect the day had had on the mental health issues caused by coming to terms with my ‘new pace of life’.

Since that day – a good few years ago – I have been lucky enough to be able to attend every workshop and was devastated when the courses were cancelled due to Covid, although that was to be expected. My attendance is a cause of hilarity to both me and the lovely staff. I’m sure Gary (the cameraman) will confirm I was always late; running in like a hurricane in a flap, but now I’ve got more of an understanding of ADHD, I’ve been putting my start times in my calendar an hour early, and I think the staff nearly fell off their chairs when I arrived one-and-a-half hours early. Either late or mega early, there’s always a warm welcome.

My favourite medium is coloured pencil, and there’s only been one workshop since I’ve been coming, which was the dog’s eye. My next favourite is pastel and there seems to be a trend with animals for these workshops. I suffer from fatigue in my hands and arms. I find Pan Pastels easy to work with as they need less dexterity than stick pastels, but I still enjoy the stick pastels as I seem to get a better result with pastel mediums. Acrylics are also very forgiving and not too strenuous, apart from the blue canvas when I was having a bad day and just covered the canvas in blue paint. I’ve called it my ‘Blue Period’!

“An acrylic workshop. To make you laugh,
I had a bad day!”

I have tried oils, and they are definitely my least favourite. I think this is because of the drying times between stages… or maybe it’s just my lack of skill! I really enjoy the challenge of using different mediums, and by the end of the day, my workspace looks like a five-year-old’s because I’m so disorganised, or maybe it’s too much for my mind to concentrate on that as well as the picture. Gary always laughs as I leave the workshop covered in paint, and usually my face too. I always apologise to my neighbour about the imminent chaos, but I haven’t received any adverse comments so far, and I think that this is because we’re all in the same boat and there’s no snobbery.

“Panda in pastel on velour, Vic Bearcroft. I do like using pastels.”

To be honest, I don’t get much chance to paint at home and tend to lose heart when I find it difficult; that’s why I like the workshops and the tutoring from the artist on the day. When I get home afterwards, I’m shattered, and it’s almost like a ‘come down’ and I usually go straight to bed, but the experience is so worth it. I suppose this is how I get over any obstacles my condition causes. Thankfully the workshops have continued, and I attend all mediums, regardless of my ability, for the opportunity to be mindful and totally in the moment. I have spoken to other attendees during the lunch break, who have all said the same. I find it hard to comprehend how I can have ME, which is crippling fatigue, but also have ADHD? Most people see someone living with ADHD as running around like a mad person, which I do when I’m awake, and my mind is always racing, and I think this is why art slows my brain down. As part of my mental health treatment, I received Social Prescriptions, and it’s a shame that the SAA workshops aren’t included in these activities. To sum things up, I can only thank all involved for providing such an integral part of my life now, and long may it continue!

“Jeremy Ford’s gouache – ‘Hedgerow Harvest’”

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