Outside In artist Chris Miller shares how a stroke helped him rediscover his creativity and how combining famous pictures with his story has helped to ease the horrors in his head.
When did you start making art?
I go to Headway East London. I had a stroke about 6.5 years ago and before that I was interested in art but I didn’t do any. At secondary school they told me I wasn’t any good so I did sciences. But when I had my stroke there was the art studio at Headway and they encouraged me to go in there and do some artwork.
At the start it was hard as I have issues with my writing from the stroke but it was good exercise. One of the first things I did was a picture of the Houses of Parliament. The windows – and there are a lot of windows on the Houses of Parliament – were good for me to practice my control.
After that I did a piece called my operation. The central figure is me having my head cut open but it is sort of like a bad dream. It is based on Picasso’s Guernica – it is taking part of that painting and relating it to my story.
Do you have any regrets not making artwork for so long?
I tried to do artwork before but it never turned out how I wanted it to. After you have a brain injury you don’t care anymore, you just do it anyway. If people don’t like it, they don’t like it, if they do – they do.
‘Normal’ people (whatever ‘normal’ means) often feel they have to get everything right to produce art, but things don’t work out like that. What is important is expressing yourself and the way you feel – everything does not have to be perfect. After having a stroke my experience is that you don’t care any more, and in a way, having a stroke sets you free.
After having a stroke you are – in a way- a different person with a different body. Art, for me, is a way of exploring my different self and body.
How would you describe your artwork?
A lot of my pieces are versions of famous works but with me in them. Like Venus, it’s not Venus – instead it is me. It is about exploring my identity, how I cope with my body being different and how you perceive it. In a way, if you take famous art and your story, the famous art is a way of exploring my story.
I am not saying I am like Venus, what I am saying is it is okay to be like I am and this is how I am – I have to cope with it and other people have to cope with it as well.
What inspires your work?
The connection with other people’s art is a way of telling my story, it is different from just telling it – it adds to and deepens the work.
When I first had my stroke my wife arranged for me to go on holiday and there was a swimming pool there. A ten year old boy came up to me and asked if I had been on the slide, I said I am too old for the slide but we had a conversation about what was good about the pool. That was the first time anyone outside my family had treated me as a normal human being – so I made a painting of that.
I did a talk at Headway and someone there had just had a stroke, you could tell he was quite depressed – understandably. A year later he came up to me and told me, word-for-word, that story and how much it helped him – that was very important. Art is about connecting to what has happened to you and sometimes it can be helpful to other people as well.
What is your process?
Sometimes people suggest things, or it just comes to me – what I am going to do next. It is about exploring different things. Since I have been at Headway I have been going to galleries and looking at different things, then suddenly I can make a connection to things – mostly it is in my head- often with me in famous art, or stories like this one, that have happened to me.
Why do you create artwork?
Why I do artwork is partly for me – if you can put what is often horrific in a painting, the horror in your head is not quite as bad – it is no longer in your head, but in the painting. But as well it is about communicating what it is like to be me. There are things you can communicate with an artwork that you can’t communicate with talking or writing.
From Headway, a team of us go and speak about brain injury to speech and occupational therapists and other health care professionals. We talk about what brain injury it is like from the patients’ point of view. Often I tell true stories, but with paintings, like with my version Botticelli’s Venus, you can communicate something by just looking, that it would be impossible to do just with words.
What are your future plans with your art?
In the last year or so I have been putting together my paintings with some of my writing.