Art therapy for traumatised combatants

An old university friend who suffered depression once explained that when walking through parks he used to be blind to the greens, reds and golds of plant life, and saw only shades of grey.

But Art and Conflict, an art therapy exhibition by traumatised veterans of the Gulf, Falklands and other wars yields an intense spectrum of colour and illumination. The exhibitiion is split into two halves, and is a fascinating commentary on recovery from mental illness and, in particular, post-traumatic stress disorder.

The oil and acrylic paintings that make up the art section capture colourful scenes of tranquility amid beautifully-depicted landscapes: the Scottish highlands and the Himalayas, to name but two.

But be prepared for the dark end of the spectrum. The Conflict section, believed to be the first public exhibition of art therapy work by psychiatric patients, was sparse and challenging. Here, all artwork was produced during one-hour classes at Tyrwhitt House in Surrey, a 30-bed centre run by Combat Stress, the charity for traumatised ex-service personnel.

These emotionally-charged sketches are the result of veterans working through psychological scars inflicted by the horrors of war.

A simple black-and-white outline of a lone climber, desperately clinging to a cliff face, was an immensely powerful illustration of the dark, uncertain path to recovery.

At the same time, Cliff Hanger’s unrelenting bleakness – even the sun, though etched in yellow, had a dark veneer – recalled the sensory dysfunction my friend had described.

Elsewhere, violent explosions featured heavily as the veterans dealt with flashbacks of indelible battlefield memories. Others depicted the painful return to civilian life, such as Hypervigilance, an ominous urban landscape where houses had eyes instead of windows.

The softly-lit, intimate setting of Together’s gallery in London provided a striking contrast to the chaos depicted on canvas.

The loneliness of the rock-climber was set to be my abiding memory. But then I noticed a jumble of tiny circles of red, yellow and blue painted over swirls of green. Its disorder was matched by a compelling brightness which seemed to be in celebration of the gifts of sight and colour.

Below Colour and Light, artist Taff Thomas, a retired sailor who served in the Falklands, wrote simply: “My life is so dark that the colour I use brings inspiration to me.”

Colour and light. Art therapists will tell you that words cannot express the intensity of emotional trauma. But those two words, to me, spoke volumes.

Art and Conflict is at Together’s Our Space gallery, 12 Old Street, London, EC1V 9BE. Free entry Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, until 16 January.

This article appears in the 8 January issue of Community Care magazine under the heading The oils of war

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