For the last of our current In Conversation series with professionals who have a dual practice as artists and healthcare practitioners, we met up with Marie Denham at her work space in A4 Sounds.
Marie Denham is an illustrator, shadow puppeteer and nurse. Marie studied General Nursing in DCU and currently works in the Orthopaedic Clinic of Beaumont Hospital. She is a co-founder of the Flight of Fancy shadow puppetry troop and is a member of A4 Sounds, an interdisciplinary art collective based in Dublin. Marie is currently developing an educational comic book for teenagers attending the Cochlear Implant Clinic in Beaumont Hospital.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Marie, you have a background in nursing. What inspired you to train as a nurse and what is your area of specialisation?
I’m working six years as a nurse in Beaumont Hospital. I studied general nursing in DCU, my two grannies were nurses and my mum really wanted me to be a nurse. She knew I’d be good at it, in that I have that kind of calming nature, so people say. I also liked biology so I was interested in how the body works. But at the same time I loved art and that was my big passion so I had a conflicted career pathway choice. I almost went to do animation and changed the very last day of the CAO application form.
I started in outpatients, in the clinics, and then I went to the wards for a little while and then went back to the clinics. The last three years I’ve been working in the plaster room, doing plaster casting in the orthopaedic clinic.
It was right up my alley in that it’s probably the most arts and craftsy nursing job you can get. You’re working with your hands all day every day. I also specialised in wound care and have a Tissue Viability/Wound Care nursing post grad. It’s quite creative because you have to be constantly thinking of what materials you need to use for a certain wound, there are so many different varieties. I like that aspect. And also it’s a very visual job because you have to really look and analyse the wound and the person as a whole. In nursing in general, you’re analysing a lot and looking at the evidence in front of you and trying to figure out what’s going on with the person depending on their condition.
I’m now in charge in the plaster room. I’ve nice hours which is a good point to make – if I didn’t, I couldn’t do art as well. I might have moved totally into the arts but I’m actually really happy doing the two. And it took me years to be okay with that, that I can do both, and I don’t have to choose.
Journey, painting by Marie Denham
Were the arts incorporated in any way in your nursing degree?
I had this amazing lecturer in college called Briege Casey who has since gone on to do Art Therapy. She taught a module called Humanities which was an optional course. We looked at art, books and poetry. It was about analysing art and then using that as a tool to analyse people or go deeper, think deeper, a deeper thought, which I think is what artists have.
We looked at different paintings and really analysed each one and thought about the people in it or the people creating the art and why they did it. The nursing course, it has so much packed into it, but if everybody got to do even two hours a year of humanities training maybe that would help people to be better communicators and better able to see things from their patient’s perspective.
I also did my thesis on how art therapy can help people with cancer overcome and digest their feelings about their diagnosis. Studies have found that art therapy can help connect the right and left brain to open up the pathways of communication.
Marie Denham in her workspace at A4 Sounds
At what point did art become something that you wanted to practice alongside your nursing career?
I always tried to make some time for drawing and painting. During my nursing degree, I took six months out and was painting a lot. That was a really important time in my life and I felt I stepped back from myself in a sense to think about my next step in life.
I had studied art in school and did a diploma course in Mad Art Gallery, which has since gone, to fine tune my painting skills. Joining A4 Sounds in 2014 was huge. I nearly felt like I got to go to art college after all when I joined – everyone is so friendly and helpful and gives you so much advice. But also I feel like it’s a place where you can experiment and really learn and expand.
You have described your paintings as illustrative and illustration has become central to your practice. What is the appeal of illustration for you?
I always painted in an illustrative kind of way. Every painting would have a story to it which is in essence illustration. That’s what I naturally did so I naturally went that pathway. I had an exhibition at the end of the six months [away from DCU] where I collected funny phrases, life phrases and favourite quotes from songs and put them altogether. At the end of the exhibition, I felt it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. So then I moved on to illustrating a children’s book called The Moon Fox and I found that a lot better. I really liked that it would be used and re-used and wouldn’t just be one picture in one person’s house.
The Moon Fox, artwork by Marie Denham
How did the opportunity to illustrate a children’s book come about?
I wrote a children’s play which we performed with a few other actors at Vantastival and Body and Soul. I loved the idea of children’s art in general that was quite fun, lively and vibrant. I was going to create my own book from the play but then a friend had a children’s story already and he was looking for an illustrator so I offered to do that as a stepping stone towards doing my own book in the future.
What inspires you as an illustrator?
I guess morals, which leads back to healthcare and the reason I wanted to be a nurse as well, to help make the world a little bit better, and so illustrating images that make people feel a little bit happier or that they learn something from.
The Moon Fox, artwork by Marie Denham
You’re developing a healthcare comic book at the moment. What aspects of healthcare are you exploring?
I was talking about illustrating The Moon Fox in work because I was really excited by it. At the time I was working in the Cochlear Implant Clinic in Beaumont and there are a lot of kids running around all the time. So I ended up telling the staff there that I was starting to do illustration a lot more and they said, would you be interested in doing a children’s book for us? This is for teenagers because there are a lot of books already for babies and children getting cochlear implants. So it was a gap that they felt was needed healthcare-wise. I like that kind of comic-book style anyway so I was like yeah, delighted, love to do that.
I think it really helps being a nurse for this kind of art work because you know what things look like and you know what the patients’ needs are and what the healthcare professionals’ needs are.
Where are you now in terms of the book’s development?
I need to bring the images back to the audiologist and she’s going to show them to the group [of teenagers] that she has at the moment and get their feedback. It’s very much a collaborative process between myself and the audiologist. I came up with the basic concept first and then she came up with the text. She’s the one that explains this to the teenagers every day, so she knows it inside out.
Detail from process artwork, educational comic book for teenagers at the Cochlear Implant Clinic in Beaumont
What is the concept you’ve come up with to appeal to teenagers?
It’s a comic book about a girl called Ciara, and she’s got lovely red hair, so I’ve tried to keep it a little bit Irish to keep it more local. She gets emotional the same way any other teenager does. At the beginning as her hearing deteriorates, she’s very upset as she’s confused and isolated. It follows her journey of getting a cochlear implant – from the GP, to vaccinations, to scans, and meeting several different doctors; it’s quite a big process to go through. So it would be a great tool for teenagers to be able to say, okay, I’m at this stage just like the girl in the comic book. I know I have several more steps to go but I’ll just do it one step at a time and I’ll get there in the end. A comic book is so visual – the teenagers would obviously be more visual than auditory learners, making it very accessible to them.
Have you been involved in other artistic collaborations or activities in the hospital?
My friend Catherine Hyland works in the Intensive Care Unit in Beaumont and was doing a presentation about the art of dying. We made a video and I illustrated her story. It was an educational video for staff members to improve patient care. Often you go to these lectures and they’re all PowerPoints and everything looks the same. It was something that really stood out as different and eye-catching and kind of woke people up.
The video is about the end of life care of an elderly woman called ‘Mary’ who had no immediate family. A friend she met through a voluntary charity ended up being her advocate in hospital as she had no one else in her time of need. It raises the ethical questions of who can be a patient’s next of kin if there are no family members and what happens to those people who end up dying with no one at their side.
Video still: ‘Mondays with Mary’ by Catherine Hyland and Marie Denham
It’s great that your colleagues, the ones who know that you’re a practising artist, have seen that potential for collaboration and co-opting of your creative skills.
Myself and Catherine are hoping to do more in the future. I definitely think that using the arts in healthcare can create more personable and homely care. The clinical environment can create a divide between patients and healthcare professionals. Although you need that boundary to keep things professional, you also need to create trust. I think it would improve patients’ trust if things felt a little bit more comfortable and their living space less clinical. An element of creativity and fun where it’s appropriate can really break down that barrier.
How would you like to see this happening in the hospital?
You could have a community artist within the hospital. There are activities in psychiatric services and in paediatrics but not always in adult general acute services. I’ve found that with people who’ve grown up with CF and have gone through the paediatric services and then go into the adult services, they find it such a cold shock to go from one to the other because one has so much to offer and the other has the basics. It’s so boring being in hospital and every hour feels like four hours; if you had a fun, nice, safe way to fill your day with activities – if you are well enough – that would break up the boredom.
Are there other ways in which your arts practice and engagement with the arts has influenced your approach to nursing?
In the Orthopaedic Clinic the staff can get very stressed. So with laughter being the best medicine, I print off a healthcare-related comic from the internet to give everyone a little giggle in work. That’s one thing that I’ve brought in. I’m also collecting any drawings that the doctors have left behind from teaching patients about their conditions. I would like to develop this as an educational tool for medical and nursing students so that they can figure out what the drawing is and maybe what the condition or the diagnosis was.
Grainne Mhaol, shadow puppet show
And what about the ways in which being an artist might be beneficial in terms of your day-to-day work as a nurse?
Well, [my work colleagues] definitely see it in the way that I put on casts and how quickly I could learn how to do that because I was working with materials and working with my hands. People would say, you’re born to do this, you’re a natural, which was very nice to hear. My nickname is MacGyver cause I’m so crafty. It helps me be a better teacher as there are so many different types of casts and tweaks that aren’t in every book, sometimes you need that creative mind to overcome that obstacle.
The arts have also been a stress reliever, to expel whatever I’ve encountered from my day in healthcare.
You are also a puppeteer and a co-founder of the Flight of Fancy shadow puppetry troop. What is it about puppetry that captured your imagination?
I started it up three years ago with another artist called Megan Woods. It’s stemming from the illustration of children’s books and the drama for children. I thought there should be more puppet shows out there for kids. And I really like the idea of puppetry bringing back some magic in the world, that idea of something that’s not alive and then suddenly it is. Especially with shadow puppetry, you can just use a cardboard box and suddenly it’s a beautiful princess; you can transform things by light trickery and how you use film. There are so many aspects to it as well. There’s the making, the writing, the performance, the voice acting, the movement and playing with light.
Preparing visuals for Shadows of the Táin at Smock Alley Theatre
What type of shows have you done and where have they travelled?
We started doing music festivals, Vantastival and Body and Soul, in 2011. There are specialised areas for the kids at festivals. Music festivals are a great place for a show as they have a magical atmosphere and you don’t have to rent out a theatre space, the theatre is there waiting for you.
Lately, we’ve been doing more shows that are for mixed audiences, children and adults. Last year we worked with these storytellers called Candlelit Tales. We did a week-long show called Shadows of the Táin in Smock Alley which was a great success. And from that, we got another gig with them for Galway Arts Festival.
Shadows of the Táin was a huge project for our team to undertake. The show was an hour long and we visualised the mythical monsters and legends of the stories. When spells were cast or faeries foretold prophecies, the images were distorted through crystals and painted glass. The most important visual element of the show was the puppets, and colours moved perfectly in sync with the musical beats creating a truly unique performance of music, puppetry and storytelling.
Shadows of the Táin
When it comes to performing and bringing shows to different parts of the country, how do you create a balance with your nursing work? How do you make it all happen?
I have to plan ahead if I’m going to do a show. I have to make sure that I have time off work; I would use some of my holidays so I can do a show. You can’t be exhausted in work so I can’t take on too much artistically. Definitely planning and organising is what you really need to be able to do the two. If I was to accept doing a show every single week that would be crazy. So I just kind of do it to suit myself. Because I have to work around my hours, collaborating with other artists or theatre groups doesn’t always suit me. But I’m still happy the way I’m doing it. I feel it hasn’t held me back because I’m only doing as much as I want to do.
In terms of the arts world, have you felt any push back when people learn you are also a nurse? And vice versa, when you tell people in healthcare about your arts practice?
The great thing about A4 is that I’ve encountered so many open-minded people here. What usually happens is that people see one of my shows before they know I’m a nurse. So they find out afterwards and they’re like, and you’re a nurse, what?! Maybe if they found out the other way round, they would be more closed-minded. I find in the artistic world sometimes if I say I’m a nurse and I don’t tell them I do anything else, then they either don’t know what to say next or else they’ll tell me a really sad story about somebody. It’s always interesting to see their reactions.
In nursing, I wouldn’t say to many people that I’m a puppeteer. I feel maybe they wouldn’t take me seriously. I guess it’s that whole thing of putting people in boxes. Sometimes it depends who you’re talking to. I’ll either say I’m a nurse or an artist or a shadow puppeteer. And then I’ll maybe work in the other elements when I get to know them more because some people just get confused.
A lot of people find the two worlds very divided in their minds, there’s no crossover or connection. I think the more you connect the two the more holistic the care. They always teach us in college about ‘the art of nursing’. It’s analysing the whole person and not just focusing on one aspect of their care; that open-minded way of looking at the bigger picture and stepping back is so important for nursing.
Grainne Mhaol, shadow puppet show
What about people working in the arts, what can they learn from healthcare professionals?
Something that I’ve really learnt from being a healthcare professional and nurse is how important the basic things are in life, just eating, sleeping, looking after yourself and being kind to yourself.
What’s next? Do you have any upcoming shows?
My next show is on 6 December in D-Light Studios. It’s called The Relaxation Tape and combines live music, a relaxation tape and my shadow puppetry and magical illusions to create a calming meditative show. Which combines the arts and health aspects of my life perfectly! It is in aid of Pieta House.
Tickets for The Relaxation Tape can be purchased here: https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/the-relaxation-tape-tickets-39911585627
Sink or Swim by Flight of Fancy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-KnYJ4BDFQ