The Berkhamsted artist who is using painting as therapy
PUBLISHED: 18:02 10 February 2020
25 years ago Berkhamsted’s Frances Thomas was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, resulting in a journey into art that is both therapy and expression
I never realised until last week how high the landscape rises to the south west of Berkhamsted High Street. In fact, after driving up a steep hill towards Frances Thomas' home, then up a lengthy and ascending drive and, having pressed the doorbell, turning to admire the vista, my appreciation of this elevated location soars.
It's a location well suited to a painter who says the artform has given her a 'rebirth - a fresh purpose'. As we make our way through to a large drawing room Frances adds, 'There's a spiritual element to my work. My scenes come with a strong desire to paint them, I don't know why. It's an expression, sometimes in angst, or joy or love. We're not in charge of our own creativity.'
With no youthful longing to become an artist, or even childhood recollections of painting, the catalyst for this 75-year-old to communicate through a variety of mediums, 'anything I can get my hands on', is something she articulates with engaging honesty. 'I had a psychological disturbance which manifested itself as bipolar 25 years ago,' she explains. 'One side effect is creativity. I started tentatively; this level of painting has only been evident for 10 years.'
At this point I could comment on the maturity of her compositions, her instinctive use of colour (vibrant tones that infuse depth into her subjects), the freedom of her brushstrokes but, while each of these deserves credit, it's the stoicism of her artistic journey which is so captivating. 'I've had various breakdowns which have put me into hospital,' Frances continues. 'I ended up at Mind classes in Hemel Hempstead where two women took me under their wing and encouraged me. Painting is the best therapy. It's like solving your own battles without getting your cheque book out.'
At this time of year, working in her kitchen, Frances paints in silence. She sources her tools from a local art shop and is most productive when natural light is at its brightest. One of her large canvases, Nasturtiums From Our Garden, displayed on the wall opposite where I'm sitting, is a fine example of her success at marrying delicate subjects with bold tones. Excitement resonates as she recounts the process of painting it. 'I was rather proud of the flowers which I'd grown from seed. I put a handful in a very cheap old glass Kilner jar then started to put little roots inside the jar. Then I mixed pale blue and white paint and dubbed it over with thick brushes. My interpretation is: "hang on, no one's invisible, even if we're hidden in a jam jar".'
Other subjects which appeal to Frances include Ashridge and its Thunderdell Wood, though she recognises beauty in a diverse range of subjects, from a child's face to 'careworn hands' or a selection of fruit placed on a tea towel. But don't for one moment think this artist's skills are limited to canvases. Poetry is a parallel creative process which began a quarter of a century ago when medication brought her mental stability. Last year, paintings and poems came together in the publication of A Legacy of Love which followed a chance encounter.
'I met Winkwell designer Nick Halliday at a lunch. I had a vague idea of doing a book and Nick quickly saw how he could put the whole thing together. My art and poetry come at different times but are on the same path. What I write for is humanity. This sounds boastful but if you read it, you'll see.' Publication coincided with an exhibition at Berkhamsted's The Way Inn Gallery which prompts me to ask how important it is for a viewer to 'get' her paintings. 'It's absolutely lovely if they do, but it's rare. Unless there's a bit of them on my wavelength, how can anyone understand the meaning of my work?
'At another exhibition a man walked in, looked at my stuff and said my art just had something to say. I thought that was lovely. It's good to feel you're being acknowledged.'
After spending the afternoon with Frances, I'm not only inspired by her creativity, but her attitude too.
'My dream is for every psychiatric hospital to have a room where people can draw what's going on in their head,' she declares. 'Art is powerful, why not use it for situations in which people are really suffering?'