East London charity helps brain injury survivors channel pain into painting

Billy Mann’s artworks are displayed at Stratford Circus Centre. Pic: Aghnia Adzkia

Billy Mann realised something was wrong when his vision started blurring and he felt his body strain. A former music journalist, he had been working at his desk on a normal October day in 2012.

He has now captured that moment in a painting: “The memories are sharp but the feelings are vague. A noise in the ear. A buzzing pitched annoyance.” He seems to lose himself in thought, but then snaps to, as if suddenly awaking from a dream: “It was a stroke alright.”

A stroke left half of his body paralysed. He couldn’t feel or use his left arms or legs. A part of his brain called the cerebellum also experienced a lack of blood flow which affected his overall balance. Mann found he couldn’t hold anything without dropping it. He was sent to Royal London Hospital.

Four months later, after making improvements in his physical recovery, he was able to go back home. But the man who once wrote tirelessly, was reduced to slouching in front of the television all day long as he succumbed to crippling depression. He became the picture of a broken man.

So at his neurologist’s advice, he went to Headway East London, a community for brain injury survivors in Hackney. That’s when he was able to start his life anew.

Self-expression through art

According to Headway research, one person every 90 seconds is admitted to hospital in the UK with Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). Headway East London, a charity for over 200 brain injury survivors, helps survivors embrace self-expression through various activities: cooking, music and art. The charity has been running since 1997 and they acquired an art studio in 2006. Headway East London Communication Manager Laura Owens said: “Many of the 40 members who use the studio now consider art as their job.”

Billy Mann. Pic: Aghnia Adzkia

Mann was able to express himself through painting following his stroke. He used to paint with technology, using apps and programs, before attending Headway’s art studio. There, he learnt how to paint with real paint on canvas.

The first piece he painted was a re-creation of his stroke. He called it “Surrender” which was followed by four more pieces that depict his journey of recovery. “The second piece is what I imagine happened during brain surgery. I did not know what actually happened but my wife told me what things happened,” he said.

Painting helped him manage his anxiety and anger. This process became the subject of his fourth and fifth pieces, “Control” and “Release.”

His artworks are part of Headway’s Exhibit on display until February 23 at Stratford Circus Arts Centre in London. The exhibition features 70 artworks from 30 artists who, like Mann, survived brain injury.

“I do art as the main thing, that is what I do. I like to hang out at the studio, and listen to the music,” Mann told Eastlondonlines.


Therapeutic Art

A study by Frances Reynolds, a lecturer at the Occupational Therapy Division at Brunel University London, has found that visual media may have therapeutic potential for brain injury survivors, especially from strokes. Research has shown a third of stroke survivors experience depression.

Art enables them to gain: “insight into the psychosocial consequences of their disabling condition, to express their feelings about change and loss, and to make known their wishes for the future.”

Even though there is no significant link between art and healing injury, Reynolds’ study shows art allows brain injury survivors to slowly let go of the pain and enjoy the creative process.

Simple images that become artistic pieces show that there is indeed an improvement in their brains.

Sam Jevon suffered a diffuse brain injury in a car accident. Pic: Aghnia Adzkia

Sam Jevon, 47, who suffered a diffuse brain injury after being involved in a car accident 7 years ago, likes to paint buildings, people and animals.

She was driving her two children for their summer trip when she lost her balance that sent the car rolling and threw her out of the window. Jevon was severely affected by the accident, whilst her children, thankfully, were unharmed in the back seats.

Jevon was in a coma for months before waking up and learning what had happened. She suffered from severe communication disorder after that.

“I spend a lot of time in the art space. Sometimes I try to give other people ideas or I get them a pencil or a brush,” Jevon said of her experience so far with Headway.

Her artwork on display for Headway is called “Crazy Community” which features various animals, people and buildings in one single frame.

Sam’s piece ‘Crazy Community’ is displayed at Headway’s exhibition. Pic: Aghnia Adzkia

Creative Leader Michelle Carlile revealed: “When Sam first started working in a studio, she used to paint pictures that reminded me of the pictures we did when we were at school: houses, apples, and trees, because that’s what she remembered when she was at school. It took time for her style to evolve and explore what are her strengths.”

“It gets better all the time. Definitely. You have to learn to accept the person that you are. And other people should try to understand you,” Jevon told Headway.

Exploring creativity

Mann, Jevon and 20 other artists create art and explore their inner creativity in Headway’s art studio, dubbed the Submit to Love Studio.

Colourful artworks cover the walls of the studio and music echoes the relaxing atmosphere in the studio.

Carlile says it is important that the survivors decide every detail of their artwork. She says it reinforces their sense of independence after a long period of relying on people to do things for them.

Carlile said: “In a studio, we encourage them to support one another, [so] that they relearn how to do things themselves, simple things like choosing what colour. That is about having my own choice.”

“For some who is surely impeached with a disability, they are not able to talk, they are not able to walk, drink or swallow, for them, they might be just able to blink an eye, I want blue,” she said further.

Creating art, according to Carlile, is “therapeutic.” The artists learn a new skill and are creative, “and just let go some of that trouble.”

Headway’s ‘Submit to Love’ studio is a relaxed environment where brain injury survivors can express themselves freely. Pic: Aghnia Adzkia

A study by Mi Kyoung Kim and Sung Don Kang from Wonkwang University, South Korea, reveals that colour therapy among stroke patients helped them regain a sense of ambition, pursuing life goals after injury.

Kim and Kang treated 16 men and 12 women in Korea within 13 sessions divided into three stages: the early phase (practice and expression through colour), the middle phase (setup for future direction), and the late phase (empowering with psychological support).

During the treatment, patients using achromatic colours indicate unstable mental health, while chromatic colours demonstrate better mental health and an improved ability to pursue life goals.

Carlile applies a similar method in Headway art studio by identifying which colour the brain injury survivors would like to draw. She said: “That is one of my challenges, to explore where people are at and where is the person creatively? I supposed we just [ask], ‘What colour are you thinking of today?’ We go from there, we explore colour, and we start from there.

“We are not focused on painting a pretty picture, but we use hands a lot. We make marks, we don’t try to make pictures, we explore movement, colour and sound that we bring it on together. It is a process and a journey figuring it out.”

Headway East London Director of Development Ben Graham said: “Therapy is about making yourself better, but what they’re doing is about making something, selling it to people, engaging with the public and forming an identity they feel comfortable and happy with.

“Essentially they’re no longer unemployed, which affects their self-worth, and gives people that root to self-expression.”

Jevon and Mann hardly committed to anything after suffering brain injuries, but they are now inspired to paint more pieces even after the exhibit.

“Yes, I am doing more stuff now so yes [I will paint more later on]. Just find the way in, normally you can build on it, and that is the clue and build various things. It is like a put lock,” Mann said.

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