September’s Artist of the Month Gail Henderson reveals how her artworks are ‘dark, detailed, maps of my unconscious’ and form part of her wellbeing.
When did you start making art?
I have always drawn and wanted to be an artist. I began by making line drawings of cats as an infant. However, I have chronic mental health issues, so my art has become part of my wellbeing. I see it as part of me and something I have always done. My works are autobiographical.
How would you describe your pieces?
My drawings or collages are dreamy, carnivalesque, bodily renderings of my inner world. My project is as continuous as my lifespan. My drawings are mostly self-portraits. They are surreal, dark detailed maps of my unconscious. They have developed due to my need for depersonalisation as I have had difficult psychological experiences.
Does your artwork follow set processes, or does it vary?
The drawings of dreamy women or self-portraits emerge from the paper as I use a process of layering when I sketch out my unconscious. I build the drawings in lines and torn paper to translate to others fragments of the dark self. I see what I may not know about myself!
I use tactics such as performance drawing and feminist research to access to my personal iconography. I write autobiographical poetry which generates the imagery I portray. This therapeutic writing is a self-engendered form of bibliotherapy. The characters in the drawings are performative as they enact characterisations of my autobiography!
What inspires you?
My drawing process helps me cope with illness and gives me a feeling of wellbeing and a purpose. The way this helps me stay well inspires me! Looking at beautiful drawings is inspirational, and I enjoy studying closely, how other artists draw. I am very much looking forward to seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings as there is an exhibition at Queens Gallery, Buckingham Palace called ‘A Life in Drawing’. This show will definitely fascinate me. I have been enjoying looking drawings online by a Swiss artist called Miriam Cahn and look forward to any exhibition of her works as visiting galleries inspires me. Miriam Cahn is a feminist and her drawn iconography mindfully emerges from dust!
Do you have any creative role models?
I admire many artists and writers, but I do not have any particular role models. I empathise with surrealist artists such as Leonora Carrington and admire Unica Zürn’s drawings. I enjoy therapeutic writing such as the Diary of Anais Nin, Jackson Pollock’s psychoanalytical drawings and his black poured paintings of personal iconography are also interesting to me. Louise Bourgeois practice was a way of expressing and coping with anxiety for her and I identify with that release!
What do you hope viewer gets from your work?
I hope the viewer will look at my drawings and enter my surreal world to engage with my dream of the feminine self. I anticipate that this experience helps someone know more about themselves and their own unconscious. I would like people to engage with the dynamics of my carnivalesque maps and perhaps come up with their own story about them. I would appreciate it if the viewer could sense how the drawing was made due to the traces of the process left intrinsic to each piece. The drawings can be understood in an abstract sense as line, shape, tone, mood and fragment. I would like the audience to be aware of the emotion present in the drawings be it sadness, pain or joy for example. I think the body is always part of the drawings and you can see this in the morphology.
Has there been a standout moment for you as an artist so far?
Being accepted at the RCA to do an MPhil at the Centre of Drawing Research in 1998 was a standout moment for me as an artist and then graduating with an MPhil in 2004 despite a period of illness in the middle of the course. Working on my drawings there with excellent supervision really helped me develop my drawing skills and raised the level of what I could expect from my graphic works.
Is there an artwork you are most proud of?
My artwork is about the process of maintaining my wellbeing, so I think of it mindfully! I don’t have a standout work! I consider all of the drawings to be part of one body. Consequently, the project is as much about my experience of making the drawings as artwork itself.
What are your hopes for the future?
My most important aspiration is to remain as well as I can be. I would also like to exhibit my works in public collections, so it has an audience and it is accessible. I would enjoy working on therapeutic drawing projects with others.
Why did you join Outside In?
The organisation is communicating with artists like me who through illness or disability who encounter barriers when engaging with the mainstream artworld. I liked the ethos of the Outside In project and empathised with the artists I saw on the website.