Emotional art proves inspirational

Rowan MantellPowerful pictures expressing fears and feelings unleashed by those diagnosed with cancer have gone on show in Norwich. ROWAN MANTELL reports on a unique exhibition by women who had no idea they were artists.Rowan Mantell

Powerful pictures expressing fears and feelings unleashed by those diagnosed with cancer have gone on show in Norwich. ROWAN MANTELL reports on a unique exhibition by women who had no idea they were artists.

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A wintry battlefield, rainbow figures dancing, and a tangle of bright flowers and seeds leap from the paper. Every picture is different and every picture is about a woman battling breast cancer.

The art, never intended for the public gaze, is by local women who, alongside more conventional and invasive therapies, were prescribed painting, drawing, printing and collage.

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The results offer a glimpse into inner trauma - and recovery.

But lack of cash has forced the art therapy group to close so that the Norwich exhibition has become simultaneously a celebration, a swan-song and an appeal for help.

For the women, most of whom had not lifted a paint brush since school art lessons, art therapy was a chance to express feelings which were often too raw and incoherent to put into words.

'They produced some extraordinary and very powerful images, often managing to say the unsayable,' said art therapist Jackie Coote.

Meeting for two hours a week they created their pictures in virtual silence, and then talked through the issues raised with qualified and experienced therapists.

Jackie explained that the paintings would usually be treated like confidential medical records but when money ran out for the art sessions the women wanted to demonstrate the power of the therapy.

There has probably never been an exhibition like it before.

More than 40 pictures are on show at the Forum from today until next Thursday.

The pictures, all professionally framed for the exhibition, are vibrant and colourful, often packed with conflicting images of life and death and swirling with emotion.

Jackie explained that one reason why they decided to hold the exhibition in the Forum is that it is a very public place. People going about their day-to-day lives might suddenly come across the paintings in the same way that women simply going about their lives can be confronted by a diagnosis of cancer.

'There is lots of colour. They are not all full of doom and gloom. They look fantastic, really impressive,' said Jackie.

'These women have agreed to put their images on display, anonymously, and show something very private to the world. It felt really unsatisfactory that it would just end without anyone really being aware of what had happened. The women wanted to tell people how much they had got from the group. We want to go out with a bang, not a whimper!'

The art therapy group ran for more than three years, funded through charitable donations for women with breast and gynaecological cancers, and led by Jackie and fellow art therapist Jo Bissonnet.

Jackie has worked mainly with adults with life threatening illnesses, particularly cancer, and was particularly proud of the Norwich-based group.

'I would never, ever, ever say art therapy could cure cancer,' she said. 'Art therapy doesn't cure cancer but what it definitely does to is help people cope. There is no evidence so far that it helps prolong life but there is evidence that it does improve quality of life.'

The women were often nervous at first. Many had not used art materials since they were at school - and even then believed they were not any good at it.'

'Our job is to help them relax and experiment and explore,' said Jackie. 'We are not there to judge their art work. People assume that we will know more than them about the marks they are making than they do. But we never analyse and interpret. We never pinpoint something and say that's what it means. It's the unconscious finding a voice. It's a very unconscious process and the whole process is just as important as the end product.

'We don't force people to explain what their painting is about, or how it makes them feel but very often they will want to talk about what it means.'

'It might be a young mum who is trying to keep things normal for her family at home and there is nowhere to take the fear and confusion and anger. Quite often we don't have the words to express how we feel, and the images hold all the things that are unsayable.

'We are not going to say, 'Oh that's a strait-jacket job!'

'There are tears, but to balance that there is also laughter and it can be fun,' said Jackie. 'Being part of a group, and finding out that other people know how you feel, lightens the load.'

Several of the women were inspired by this first foray into art as adults to go out and buy their own box of paints and continue making pictures. 'It's not the same, doing it on your own, it's not art therapy,' said Jackie, 'But it is therapeutic.'

Now the women are hoping someone will visit the exhibition, recognise the importance of the art and the therapy, and offer further funding. Just �8,000 a year, plus a venue for the weekly sessions, could enable the group to re-start.

'We were hoping someone would come along and wave a cheque at us!' said Jackie.

t Art Therapy with Breast Cancer: the Creative Response runs at The Forum until January 14.


Piano teacher Elaine found herself painting and printing ever bigger pictures of swirls and blobs when she joined the Norwich art therapy group.

Diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram, she remembers the shock of arriving at hospital believing she was fit and healthy and leaving, hours later, her head buzzing with info about treatment options, operations, outlook and survival rates.

Her partner was devastated too. 'It was quite horrendous for him because he lost his first wife to cancer,' said 57-year-old Elaine. She immediately called her two grown-up children and enlisted their support. After surgery to remove the cancer, it was a huge relief when doctors told her it had been caught early, and she did not need radiotherapy or chemotherapy. 'I don't think I would be here today if I hadn't had that mammogram,' she said.

However, art therapy was a vital part of her convalescence - recommended by one of the breast cancer care nurses at the Norfolk and Norwich.

'I immediately felt that I wasn't alone,' said Elaine. 'It was extremely comforting. I was allowed to say things I would normally have felt guilty about. I made friends and knew they would understand what I was saying. There was no pressure, and no rules, and there was this atmosphere of calm and peace.

'I hadn't realised that there is this creative bit in everybody and I just got hooked on it.'

As a pianist, Elaine said she had always played someone else's music. Now she was creating her own art. And she found herself painting first walls, and then paths and roads. 'I think I was trying to find my way out of something,' she said.

In fact, she enjoyed the group so much that she is now considering taking an art college course. 'I did lots of collage, painting, printing, splodgy stuff…It got bigger and bigger and bigger, taking up half the floor!' she said.

Art therapy helped her find a route away from her illness and she was devastated to discover the group would have to close and other women in similar situation would not get the chance to paint themselves a brighter future.