The following article, written by Jenny White, appeared in The Western Mail yesterday.
When Katherine Sheers, wife of Welsh writer Owen Sheers, experienced severe postnatal depression, it was art that brought her back to life, writes Jenny White.
The eloquent lines of Katherine Sheers’ life paintings express far more than a visual response to the human body. These beautiful, sensitive pieces were made while she was in the depths of postnatal depression, following the traumatic and premature birth of baby Siriol, her second child with renowned Welsh writer Owen Sheers. Making these paintings was a key part of her recovery.
Owen’s recent televised verse drama To Provide All People, a powerful tribute to the NHS, drew on the couple’s experience, from the difficult pregnancy and fear of losing Siriol, to the care provided by the NHS. Katherine’s latest body of work, currently on show at Foxy’s Deli, Penarth, is her side of the story.
The difficulties of Siriol’s arrival came as a surprise. The birth of Katherine and Owen’s first child, Anwyn (4) had been beautifully straightforward – as Katherine puts it, a “dream home birth in front of the wood burner”, so nothing had prepared them for the multiple traumas of Siriol’s entrance into the world, which included a painful emergency caesarian and time in the special care unit. Even when Siriol was eventually able to come home, they were not out of the woods – she had to be readmitted to hospital with breathing problems.
During that time, anxiety and depression gradually tightened their grip on Katherine. “It started off with things really not feeling right. I couldn’t lay her down but even when mum hold her so I could get some sleep, my heart would be pounding. A week or so later I called my GP and said, ‘I think I’m crisis here’ – I was anxious, having suicidal thoughts, and I was terrified of her not being ok and it being my fault.”
She is full of praise for the response she received: after a prompt assessment she was placed in the care of the crisis resolution home treatment team – a relatively recent initiative that enables patients to remain in their home environment rather than going to hospital. After two months she was discharged to a lower level of care, but was still far from being able to return to normal life.
“I didn’t feel ready to talk to people or go anywhere that I couldn’t take my baby, so I ended up taking her to life drawing classes. It was a perfect environment – warm, quiet and I had Siriol on me while I worked.”
Art has been a continual thread throughout Katherine’s life. She studied at Chelsea College of Art before going on to design lingerie in London, Sri Lanka, China, Hong Kong and New York. It was, outwardly, a glamorous existence: she was working for a major brand and travelling the world, but what she saw in China’s factories made her increasingly uneasy.
“There was a chasm between what life was like for the workers in the factories as compared to what the garments were sold as – that lifestyle image – and I found I wasn’t comfortable with what I was contributing to,” she says.
Eventually, in 2011 she left the job and, not long after that, she and Owen moved back to Wales.
“My roots are here – I grew up outside Abergavenny, and I loved the sense of family and community. From the point we moved back, Owen and I quietly planned that I would redirect my creativity to what I originally wanted to do – working as an artist.”
What she could not have predicted was how her experience of postnatal depression would shape her art. Initially, the classes were simply a brave first step back into the outside world, but the emotional intensity of that time, coupled with some of the practical issues that come with painting while holding a baby, brought more fluidity and expression to her work – and as this happened, the numbness of postnatal depression started to retreat.
“I thought it would just be something to get me out but it was first time since the postnatal depression that I started being able to feel things again. I had been so numb – you can be around people who love you, and you love, and there’s just emptiness. But when I drew this stranger I started to feel again. To have switched back on was immense, and through that I started coming back to myself.”
At the same time, Siriol’s presence affected her art.
“There were some very practical ways in which she did this: I had to stand to make the art, which created physical distance between me and the paper, so I started using feathers to paint and interchanging hands while breast feeding – I often apply pastels with my left hand and change to the right hand for the ink. Also, as long as I had her close to me, I felt love, and protected, and awake with that love, so the drawings came from those feelings. I drew with her for six months – it was incredible and precious, and really important in terms of what it did for my recovery and my art.”
The resulting drawings reflect a growing sense of liberation, the brush strokes energetic and expressive, yet also exhibiting an assured knowledge of the human body rooted in her design background. She has embraced her growing artistic freedom.
“When I first started making art after being a designer, I came to it with a degree of the precision needed for lingerie design – but the liberation I’ve experienced making art since then is quite intoxicating,” she says.
“I used small, repetitive stiches with my textile art, but this is a more frenetic absorption. In 20 minutes I’ll make six or eight drawings, discarding each once over my shoulder once I’ve done it. I find the more I look at one pose, the simpler the drawing will become and the less I remember drawing it. I’m excited by it: who knows what will come in the future?”
Ultimately, the life drawing classes brought her to a point where she was able to reconnect with the world more fully. She took the brave step of writing an honest and heartfelt Facebook post explaining to her friends why she had been out of touch. By choosing to be open about an issue that so many people hide, she found a new level of trust and truth in her friendships.
“What shocked me was the sheer number of people who opened up about their own experiences – friends I’d known for years or decades. What surprised me is that such a broadly experienced part of women’s and families’ lives is still so hidden under stigma. I experienced such relief from other people telling me about their experiences.”
Now Siriol is one, and Katherine can look back on her first year from a new perspective. She – they – have survived, and Katherine has come out of it with greater authenticity and freedom, both as a person and as an artist.
“I’m not quite who I was: I don’t necessarily have the capacity to put emotional energy to into something I don’t feel is a true reflection of me. I think it has made me assess my life and which parts really feel important. I no longer try to fit into an idea that someone else has – and that’s another liberation I wouldn’t have come to if I hadn’t had the experience.”
She has also created a beautiful, moving body of work, which – like her story, deserves to reach a wider audience.