Come back when you’ve settled on a style” is what gallery owners used to say to Kim Noble. That was until she decided to disclose that she had 20 personalities. From the age of 14 until she was 35, Kim was in and out of hospital with various psychiatric conditions.
Ten years ago, Kim, now in her mid-forties, began therapy and was finally diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder. Much debated and relatively rare, DID is diagnosed when an individual presents as having acquired two or more separate identities. It is purported to follow childhood trauma and is assumed to be a protective mechanism for the mind.
It was during an art therapy session just over three years ago that Kim’s therapist noticed a natural gift for painting and encouraged her to take up art seriously. Thirteen of her personalities have their own distinctive style, colour and theme.
In 2005, Kim was offered a two-year stint as artist in residence at Springfield Hospital, south London, and has since exhibited across London and in Spain to much acclaim. Going to a Kim Noble exhibition is like going to a group show with different painting styles on display. What makes her all the more remarkable is that she has only been painting for three years.
Kim’s condition has been tested by UCL psychology professor John Morton, who has established there is no memory between the personalities.
Some of Kim’s artist personalities
Patricia is Kim’s dominant personality, who both paints for and curates the exhibitions. She refers to her personalities in the first person plural: “We have the diagnosis of DID. We don’t take medication now and have not been in hospital for 10 years.”
Talking about exhibitions she adds: “It’s great to see the work up in proper galleries. I find it quite emotional as it feels like the closest thing I’ll get to being in a room with all the other personalities.”
As Kim conducts a tour of her final exhibition at Springfield hospital, she explains: “These calm paintings are by me. I’ve been moved by the welcome my art has received here, and the chance to offer creative hope to in-patients as well as staff.”
Abi’s paintings are the most technically proficient with almost photorealistic images set against a blank background. Typically featuring people coming or going, these paintings of suave men waiting in formal evening suits or homeless men drifting reflect the impermanence of the social relationships in life. As individual images they are incredibly powerful, although when shown next to each other the contrasting images are incredibly striking.
“It’s about the people who come and go in our lives,” Patricia reveals. “These paintings fascinate me, because I cannot draw a person in proportion like that.”
Shortlisted for the Samaritans Art Prize, Abi’s Coming or Going Man was exhibited this year at the House of Commons.
Bonny was Kim’s dominant personality, and she was the first personality to start painting. While the artwork that Kim’s various personalities exhibit is generated outside art therapy, there has been a marked change in Bonny’s work as a result of these rehabilitative sessions. At first she painted robotic figures, but over time Bonny has produced warmer, more human images. Her work has become particularly sought after by collectors of “outsider art” – art that is created by untrained painters. Bonny’s painting The Match was shortlisted for the Lowry Gallery One Love prize in 2006.
MJ’s artworks look like less messy versions of Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings. She only ever uses black, white and red. Patricia highlights the therapeutic nature of painting for the mostly mute MJ: “Painting helps the different personalities. For those who don’t speak it offers a way of communicating.”
While MJ’s work has been displayed in numerous galleries across London, Patricia explains the art world can be an intimidating: “I can get embarrassed at shows where I’m exhibiting with people who have been to art college as I’ve never had any formal training.”
Ria’s work is the most disturbing of all the different personalities. Raw and gruesome scenes depict silhouetted figures painted in blocks of colour, some of which are accompanied by equally disturbing poetry. Patricia is keen that people are not exposed to these difficult images and so they are usually displayed in a separate viewing space with a warning message on the door.
While Patricia has no overt memory of abuse, she is aware that DID is typically a response to coping with traumatic events, and she alludes to a troubled past. “My paintings are about life experiences,” she says.
Judy has a tense relationship with some of Kim’s other personalities. Judy’s work frequently includes abusive messages to other personalities or bemoans the fact that her work only gets shown alongside them. Patricia explains: “Judy doesn’t understand DID and finds me [Patricia] a pain. She moans that she doesn’t get an exhibition in her own name, as it’s always under the name Kim Noble.”
Judy’s figures are reminiscent of Lowry’s matchstick men, although there’s a more sinister twist to her works such as Life Game, where human figures removed from a chess board descend into oblivion.
The paintings displayed in Kim’s exhibitions are produced outside her therapy sessions. However, art therapy forms an important part of Kim’s rehabilitation.
Typically, art therapy is provided in in-patient, day care and out-patient settings – and art therapists increasingly prefer the description “arts psychotherapies”. The overall aim of art therapy, along with music therapy and drama therapy, is to help the person change and grow through the use of the particular art medium by expressing themselves and exploring difficulties.
Ami Woods, an art therapist based in Merton, south London, describes how art therapy can be helpful with some mental health conditions: “An image can hold perhaps what is hard to put into words, and so can be a more direct focus for feelings and emotional experiences that could not otherwise be easily verbally expressed.
“Through engaging with the creative process the client is actively involved and can begin to explore issues using art materials.”
Art therapy is not considered a recreational activity or a hobby, and aesthetic judgements of a person’s artwork are not the primary concern of therapists. As Woods says: “Importantly it is not necessary to have any previous experience in art. It is the process of art making and the therapeutic relationship which is of central importance.”
KIM NOBLE ON THE WEB
● Ten of Kim’s paintings have been purchased for permanent display at Springfield Hospital. For details visit www.swlstg-tr.nhs.uk
● A selection of her paintings will be shown in November at the Open Studios Gallery,168 Kings Road Arches, Brighton – go to www.johndunn.co.uk/exhibitions/index.html
● Survivors’ perspectives of DID can be found at www.firstpersonplural.org.uk
This article appeared in the 25 October issue under the headline “Thirteen artists in one”