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Life After Brain Injury: The Role of Art in Rehabilitation

26 May 2017

For many, painting or drawing helps rehabilitation after brain injury, and often ends up becoming a passion, and a way of life.

Severe brain injury can cause long-term problems that affect survivors’ personalities, relationships, and independence.

Headway East London tells us about the way in which the survivors they work with use art in their recovery:

"Survivors of brain injury often experience profound loss, alongside a huge change in identity. In some cases they have real difficulty expressing feelings and ideas. So the blank canvas is a good metaphor for life after brain injury.

"Painting and drawing are intrinsically hopeful activities because they involve putting things into the world that never existed before. If a person can make something new, give life to some part of themselves that's otherwise hard to express, this helps them reclaim lost control and gain faith in themselves." (Ben Graham)

Four artists share their stories:

Sam Jevon, 49

Sam is a single mother of two. In 2006 she was in a car accident that left her withfacial palsy, right-sided weakness and a tremor. Prior to the accident, she had no interest in art, but her work has now been featured in several exhibitions.

Artwork Leon Foggitt / Sam Jevon

“I realised I was an artist after my brain injury. Before then, I could only draw matchstick people. I’ve now been drawing for four years and have come a long way. I'm very proud of what I have achieved.

“All my drawings are ink on paper, as this allows me to work in fine detail, which has become my trademark technique.

“It took a while for my children to accept who I am now. It was hard for my family: my mum, my dad, my sister and my kids. My son did not want to see me until my eyes were open. He was upset about what happened... I think they've coped very well considering what they've been through.

“But I have a young niece and nephew who don’t know me as any different – they know me as Sam the artist and Sam the aunt.

“Art is not only relaxing, it has given me a lot more patience and confidence. It’s the way I communicate what happened, and let people know my story, as well as how it’s affected me and how I see myself now.

“I wouldn't describe myself as a disabled person at all. I'd describe myself as different, in the way I look and the way I walk. I walk with a bit of a limp. My voice is different, and I now have one eye bigger than the other. But those are about the only differences.

“I’m beginning to be able to do more of the things I used to be able to do for myself, from the ironing to the washing to the cooking. Every year I make more progress."

Cecil Waldron, 78

Cecil lives in London. He was involved in a road traffic accident in 2000, which left him with poor vision in his left eye, along with balance issues and memory problems.

Artwork Leon Foggitt / Cecil Waldron

“I know I had an accident 17 years ago, but I can’t remember it at all. Whether it’s the body or the brain that doesn’t want to remember, I don’t know.

“The person that I used to be has changed. I used to be very shy, but since my accident I’m much bolder and less fearful of explaining to people what is right and what isn’t. I never used to be like that.

“I’ve been so inspired by art, and by my tutor. I didn’t know I had it in me.

“I usually use line drawing, which is normally ink on paper which I’ll paint or colour over.

“I’m so grateful I’ve had the encouragement to be involved in the charity like this. I come to the studio every week, to enjoy myself and to meet other people. I make my own way here, which gives me confidence and makes me grateful for the independent things I can do for myself.

"While the person I used to be may have changed, I see it as one door closing, and another opening.”


Billy Mann, 57

A former designer and publisher, Billy worked for a national newspaper before a stroke in 2012 forced him into early retirement. He struggles with his eyesight and mobility.

Artwork Leon Foggitt / Billy Mann

“Surviving brain injury is different for everyone. I think I was quite lucky. I had great support when I was in hospital, but what happens after that is just as important. You are a different person after brain injury and you need to find a new way to deal with life.

“My exhibition painting is of the human brain. Some people who suffer brain injuries like to find out afterwards all about the brain and how it works. I started off like that but soon got bored. I couldn't remember which bit of the brain did what. But I did find it fascinating in a big, bold and colourful way. It is the only part of the human body that can truly be called magic.

“Working in the art studio has transformed my confidence completely. It’s something I hadn’t done before. For me, it kind of opened up a sweet shop of ideas to explore anything I wanted to. In a strange way it has taught me to trust myself. I think I’m a nicer person and I like myself more because I have been able to do things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I care more about other people around me. I give more time.

“I use all kind of mediums, from technology-based art with Photoshop and colour printers, to craft with beads and strings. Craft is one area where there’s a real overlap with occupational therapy and physiotherapy.

“The art studio is comforting, nurturing, and beautifully chaotic. There are no closed doors here. It’s a safe place where you can be yourself and get to know the new you.”

Chris Miller, 65

Chris is a retired teacher who suffered a brain injury after getting a tumour removed in 2012. Chris has right-sided weakness with reduced balance, and facial palsy, a weakening of the facial muscles (due to damage to the facial nerve) that makes it difficult to communicate.

ArtworkLeon Foggitt / Chris Miller

“Six months or so after my operation, I started doing art for the first time.

“It wasn’t long before I drew a picture of my operation. It was horrifically hard, but I wanted to put down in a painting what had happened to me. It let me talk about what had happened, more than I ever could in words.

“That picture was in an exhibition last year.

“I generally tend to do paintings of myself. They’re my versions of famous pictures, with me in them, capturing my sense of humour. I’m currently working on my version of Botticelli’s Venus.

“I usually use acrylic on paper, which involves drawing a rough outline first before painting over.

“I’m not very good at drawing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t think about things. My Botticelli Venus picture is like saying, 'It’s OK to be like me. It’s not good, but it’s OK.' You do the artwork and then you work out what it means later.

“Art has helped me to tell my story, and to feel positive about myself. It’s provided a way to talk to my friends about what happened to me. It’s also the perfect excuse to practice using my right hand again.

“My pictures are part of my history. It's created a focus for my life – inviting people in and sharing my work.”

For more information on the Headway East London service please visit the website here