Sharon Thomas’ Response to the ‘LoopIn’ exhibition

The artist Sharon Thomas with one of her sitters from the Barberium project, Jamie.

An Introduction

The trigger point for the collaboration between Clare and I was a hunger to express ourselves unapologetically as women artists experiencing the harsh environment that is the contemporary art world.

Both based in Glasgow, Clare and I have much experience practicing as artists and fine art lecturers as well. It was not until conversation in a joint studio crit planning our collaboration that we became aware of our separate battles with mental health and how much effect it had on our work.

Drawing and painting for me has always been a means to talk and make sense, a feathery pencil line or blob of paint explains what is going on in my head far more cleanly than the spoken word. But I came to respect or more value my skills, when my ability to speak and hear broke down.

Epilepsy: Condition and diagnosis

It was on a train in 2012 that I had an epileptic seizure, having not experienced one before. The fear and exasperation of loss of consciousness is immense and difficult to recover from. On the train that day I last remember talking leisurely with a woman (I think), then suddenly the voice and face of a paramedic in my face requesting that I get off the train. I did not know where I was, everyone on the train was looking at me, the embarrassment and anger at my confusion was harsh. An ambulance ride and a blunt phone call to my husband directing him to a hospital hundreds of miles from home lead me to the diagnosis after a brain scan to Epilepsy (Petit Mal), now more commonly known as Absence Seizures. According to my hospital notes, I had stopped mid-sentence and stared out of the window like I had switched off. I then slumped and began twitching and foaming at the mouth.

The wonderful passenger with me immediately reported this to the train attendant.

I had been struggling before this seizure with my memory. I had recently lost my mother, then grandmother before being made redundant from my job. The pressures resting on my head weighed heavily. I think that I had been having small absences leading to the long one on the train, which made me angry as I didn’t understand what I was doing. I recall arguing a lot at home, because others thought that I was ignoring them, which I wasn’t. I do not remember these episodes because I was not fully conscious.

When being diagnosed with this condition I felt I was in limbo. I am a strong and confident woman, artist, mother, and partner. But I needed help to support my brain: I had only known supporting others. Admitting illness was hard not only for me, but those around me who were not used to me needing help, and feeling guilty as adults to ask for it. Mental illness is scary because it is an ‘unseen’: a concept at the heart of my painting practice fighting against sexism and promoting freedom of thought. In my paintings I present the viewer with scenes of personal empowerment. Which takes me back to the beginning: in that it is my hands, as it always has been where the unseen can be seen and subsequently shared.

The visual journey

The drawing series ‘Barberium’ begun in 2017 is my contribution to the show that Clare and I present, a work made after a day of revelation, funny enough in a train station.

I am always enamoured and distracted by colour, pattern and light, so much so that I have to capture it with my hand before my brain forgets it.

I had no idea why every day I would do my daily walk between teaching institutions usually in a rush with backpack that I felt that I was walking in an Ilya Repin painting. Repin was a Russian Realist painter of the late 19th Century. I became familiar with his work as an art student in New York where I spent many hours ferreting around the Metropolitan Museum looking at them. His scenes of muddied mansions trashed by military men always swept me off my feet and lured me in. I had no idea why on earth I kept thinking I was in a Repin painting as I dashed under Central Station’s grand clock. I would berate myself to stop being so ‘loopy’. Until one day that the left hand of my brain screamed at me to stop and look, to ignore the pragmatic lecturing right side. So I did. I sat on a chair, plonked down my bag and watched the scene about me.

Then I saw it.  Very slowly as I too in the scene I found myself sat in a Repin painting. Every man (well almost) around me, running, sitting, fiddling with their mobile phones was playing and twisting: a beard! The men around me were not part of the Russian military (as far as I knew); they were not hollering in Russian across the station, whilst marching and carrying rifles, but almost everyman around me had a beard! Sitting there 5-6 years earlier that would not be a scene I would have seen, it was apparent that the twenty-tens were one of beard and brow.

My hand started twitching. I immediately entered the barbers next to the station and politely asked if I could watch the men seated as they had their faces trimmed. The barbers were amused but easy going and so began a happy year of just sitting and drawing men being trimmed at the barber shop, listening to their conversations and enjoying the female gaze of the male face. These drawings were a revelation, a space to escape and enjoy the drawn line. In the works made I have drawn strangers and friends, where they told their stories as I drew from life. One of these drawings then came to be the most important that I have ever made: that of my father. My father had always sported a moustache, like my brothers now too. Whilst visiting in January in 2018 I drew him as he sat talking to my husband, never actually having drawn him. My little nieces came and sat with me giggling, and then asking to join me and draw him too. My dad laughed away and it was a lovely daft night of gossip and joking. Sadly however that came to be the last chance I had to talk and draw my father, as he was killed 3 months later in a road accident. This drawing became the frontispiece for his funeral brochure. History shone a very different meaning upon the drawing than that of a casual scribble.

‘Loopin’: An analysis

Sharing a space and concept with Clare has provided my practice a form of freedom, with both of us tackling subjects centred around issues with mental health that are not openly chatted about.

For us it is ‘normal’ to discuss hospital treatments, our medication, the realities of being mothers with conditions that require a certain amount of mothering back. Collaborating together to explore our conditions and its effect on the work that we make has felt like a stress reliever, but more it has opened a door to more dialogue, unintimidated by outside forces that codify what is bad and what is good.

Covid-19 legacy

The period of 2020, in which the world has been forced to ‘shut down’ physically, has forced it to sit in doors and entertain itself. For Clare and I this is a common occurrence for us. On many occasions we have had to sit outside ‘normal’ social structures and feel detached.

Our freedom mechanism has always been to draw or paint and one that has led to answers and important friendships.

I hope that 2020, which sets a stage for this exhibition, will be an awakening to the world of the vital importance of visual and spoken dialogue as a means to share personal experience; from which a learned future made of wise humans and social systems can be built upon.

#mentalhealthawareness #drawing #painting #art #glasgow #beard

@epilepsyscotland @epilepsyconnections @womenwithepilepsy

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