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Opinion

Using art to help manage the life long effects of a brain injury

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Natalie Mackenzie, of BIS Services, has worked with ‘James’ since 2002. In fact, he was one of her earlier clients in her career. She is immensely proud of the challenges he has overcome; not all of the effects of the accident have been surmounted, but none the less he has exceeded many expectations of medical professionals, with a will of iron and an exceptional talent that is finally being acknowledged. Here she shares the experience.

James is not defined by his brain injury, but his experiences and the challenges of his TBI have moulded his work and the individual we now see. As we are all aware, living with a severe TBI is a lifelong journey, and I still support Jim in the community, and have continued to do so whilst he has travelled around the world, through the now ‘normal’ virtual rehabilitation.

I have watched his art bring meaning and focus to his daily life, encouraging a motivation and structure that is always needed for individuals like James managing their cognition. Although there remain issues with some areas of function, James has learnt, consolidated and implemented a toolbox of strategies that support him to pursue his passion and bring joy to others.

It has been a pleasure to work with someone as driven as James, and I have seen him take a turbulent journey through his recovery, which I am sure many professionals in the field can relate with.

His need for increased rehabilitation through life challenges is always available and those of us that work with him remain committed to supporting him as he continues to develop his artwork further, wherever that may take him. There may even be a few of you reading this today who have been part of his journey.

Some of his artwork now hangs proudly in the BIS Services office with room for more to come.

Here in his own words, is his story.

James Cyril Gardiner was born in Woking, Surrey in 1967. Parents Margaret, a cleaner, and ‘Jock’, a hospital porter, subsequently brought him up in the village of Englefield Green, Surrey.

Despite a troubled and turbulent early life James did well in most subjects at school, excelling at Art and English. His O-level mark in Art which gave him grade A was, according to his teacher at the time, ‘the highest recorded in the borough for over 10 years’.

After gaining an A-level grade B at the local sixth form college and being offered a place at Chelsea School of Art, he was faced with a difficult choice. Either go away to London to develop his Art education, or stay and work in order to look after his older, autistic brother, following his parents’ divorce and subsequent loss of the family home.

He chose the latter, and so began the next 17 years of warehouse, stock control, purchasing and accounting roles. Beginning at a fledgling Thorpe Park, and ending at China House on Piccadilly (now ‘The Wolseley’) via 7 years at the uber-trendy Halkin Hotel in Belgravia – his aptitude for detail, mathematical exactitude and forecasting meant he had developed a successful career, although a world away from anything exploiting his early artistic talent.

Maybe this was shown in other ways, however, as he was also developing a sideline career as a talented songwriter and guitarist in indie pop, with a modicum of success, but with great hopes for the future.

Life was good, and was only going to get better. Now living in London’s Olympia, with a steady, reasonable income, an active social life, and daily gym sessions meaning any excesses from the weekend were negated, all meant life was pretty much as good as it gets for an early thirty something man in the capital…

Then, one night in early September 2001, everything changed.

That evening he visited a friends’ nightclub- the infamous ‘Uncle Bob’s Wedding Reception’- to witness the first London performance of a mutual friend’s band, The Darkness.

Earlier that day, England had beaten Germany 5-1 during the qualifying stages of the 2002 World Cup, and it was a hot, heady, boozy and celebratory evening, which spilled over into the early hours of the following morning.

Eventually, he and a friend were driving home (the pal being the sober driver) when, at about 4.30 am, ‘joyriders’ were ironically the reason for James eventually being painfully aware of the word ‘Anhedonia’.

Teenage car thieves, being pursued by the Police, were travelling on the wrong side of the road with lights off at a speed of over 80mph. The head-on collision saw James’ car being bounced off some railings and then into a traffic light, therefore involving three collisions with devastating results.

The crushed pelvis, broken arm bones, eye damage and two collapsed lungs were the immediate, obvious results, a GCS of 3 on admission to hospital meaning the medical team were less than optimistic as regards the chances of survival.

Any Traumatic Brain Injury was not obvious, even after being eventually roused from the 12 day induced coma, and the long, slow process of rehabilitation commencing.

After over a year of appointments, hard physical work and bewilderment, other professionals ‘in the trade’ suggested that there was possibly another subtle, yet massively important result of the accident which would have a permanent effect on his cognition, mood and subsequent PTSD.

After eventually accepting that the previous working life was now gone forever, James was happy to see that although his hemiparesis meant his guitar playing was also a thing of the past, he could still draw – a long dormant avenue of expression was gleefully available to be explored again.

Although fatigue, scar tissue, recurring eye issues (a lens replacement and detached retina being just two) all hampered progress, the relief from the Anhedonia -with which he was now all-too familiar – was only felt when successfully completing a drawing.

The next five years were spent exploring differing media, instruction, approaches, ideas and styles, and probably meant the Foundation Course and Degree missed in the Eighties was now complete. A particular favourite was the drawing of cities around the world,

Though London was a readily available source of material. The idea of just replicating what was there in front of the artist always seemed unsatisfying, however, ‘I had done many still life works during my teens. I knew the ability to reproduce things I see accurately was still intact… but there had to be something more to be explored…’

Eventually a theme was developing in the artworks – one of recording the space occupied by people, questioning when a person REALLY exists.

‘ I think this came about as a result of thinking about my friends and family coming to visit me in hospital, when I was comatose.I was there, lying in that bed, alive. But I wasn’t there. I was occupying the space. We had an experience there, together. In that space, at the same time.

‘But, although my body was there, my personality wasn’t. And I have no memory of that time.’ This idea soon started seeping through into the artworks. Thin, black outlines of people were drawn ‘over’ a background of monochrome cityscapes, sometimes with a minimum of primary colour to provide relief.

‘I would often sit in a place, drawing the background of the city structures. And, during this time, I would take many, many pictures with my iPhone of the passers-by in my view. I would therefore record the people that had also been in that space with me, during that time.

‘Later, I would choose the stances and shapes that appealed to me from the photos, and make a composition that I felt recorded that time I was there. But all I recorded were the outside shapes of the people. Not really them, themselves , with their personalities, and thoughts and feelings…’.

The U.K. lockdown during 2020 meant the artworks suddenly had an increased level of pertinence, and this prompted a series of new works entitled ‘The City Missing The People’, showing London landmarks – this time drawn in colour – empty but with the now familiar trademark ‘Outline people’ drawn with white lines, suggesting an almost ghostly feel…

‘I wanted to show the city with a personality, but mourning the sudden absence of the multitudes of people that normally give the city it’s life, it’s feeling… it’s personality… as if it was therefore missing that part of itself’.

These drawings were included within BBC Radio London’s ‘Make A Difference’ feature, the proceeds from selling online and original purchases being donated to ‘The Big Issue’.

This work has prompted further developments – ‘ I liked the idea of looking further back – other people have also been in the same space, perhaps themselves looking back – perhaps looking forward, imagining us – a future they could not comprehend. But they WERE there then. They DID occupy that space…’

So another series of drawings has been made, redoing the ‘The City Missing The People’ works, but with the addition of Edwardian and Victorian characters posing, as if for the camera, in those same spaces, the juxtaposition of the white outline contemporary figures with the more solid, yet partially drawn grey antique poses raising all kinds of questions…

‘I look forward to continuing to develop this – and other -styles. I think I am a person with a chequered history first – and an artist second. Maybe the injury to my brain has enabled me to see things in a different way. Maybe I would never have thrown myself into Art again – there’s just no way of knowing. I hope there is still enough of the pre-accident ‘me’ to inform my Art accordingly, as the last thing I want to create is needy, ‘damaged’ pieces asking for sympathy. I hope I am now exploiting the unique approach my experience has given me…’

James’ work can be viewed and purchased on www.jamescyrilgardiner.com

HIWIN

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