Portrait of a Patient is a four-piece collection of artwork and poetry by artist Sinead Lawless exploring her personal experience with illness. Awarded the 2018 Provost Fund for The Visual and Performing Arts by Trinity College Dublin, the collection is being exhibited in the Trinity Health Sciences building at St. James’s Hospital campus in Dublin from September 2018 to September 2019.
My hope is that the work will help to create greater awareness of invisible illness and chronic conditions, that it may serve as a conversation starter and a tool for empathy and compassion.
My own journey through illness inspired this work. I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis in 2006. What followed was over 10 years of pain, anxiety, depression, hospitalisation, medication, surgery, and almost death. What also followed was awakening, awareness, gratitude and survival.
I originally trained as an animator and went on to work as a graphic designer and illustrator. When my illness took hold, I lost my artistic ‘voice’ for a long time and only began to find it again when I started attending life drawing sessions and workshops at Schoolhouse for Art in Enniskerry. As my confidence grew, I decided to apply for RTE’s Painting The Nation in 2016 and I ended up winning the competition.
When I found myself overwhelmed with illness, and unable to speak about it, I found it easier to write my thoughts and feelings down. I created a sketchbook of words and drawings that was my go to. The words came first. They would come to me usually as I lay in a hospital ward at 4am unable to sleep. I would take out my phone and let it flow. Once I was feeling better I hired a model to pose for me in ways that I felt captured that moment again. I also drew self-portraits.
I showed this sketchbook to Cillin Condon, a colleague of mine who works as a physiotherapy educator at Trinity College Dublin. He was very moved and encouraged me to apply for the Trinity College Provost Fund for the Visual and Performing Arts. My application was successful and I was awarded the Provost fund to create four paintings from my collection.
I interpreted my sketches and words using a mixture of charcoal and acrylic paint on four 1.2 x 1metre canvases.
The paintings and text are being used as a teaching tool for students in the Trinity Health Sciences building to illustrate the various emotions that patients with chronic physical disease experience. Cillin is using the VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) approach to explore the paintings with students.
As novice healthcare professionals, the students may have limited experience of chronic conditions. This project aims to nudge them towards a broader undertaking of the patient while they develop a medical knowledge base. Secondly, as students, they must learn to work in a team and be cognisant of differing views. Through structured VTS discussions, the artworks encourage students to consider the views of others who might have different perspectives on the images and to recognise their own biases, thereby building better teams.
The collection comprises four paintings and four accompanying poems. A private launch was held in the Trinity Centre for Health Sciences on 24 September 2018 for the staff and students of Trinity and a few other invitees.
The collection is on display near common areas used by all healthcare students and staff. Members of the public also access these common areas.
Noise of pain
Make it stop
The work had to pass through a curation process within Trinity College Dublin before being displayed.
Feedback was solicited from exhibition attendees. Comments from the public, especially on social media, validated the goal of the work, which was to garner understanding for those suffering with chronic and invisible illness.
In an information-ready, self-help society, the guilt of being ill belongs to the patient. Taking responsibility for yourself is the modern day mantra. Although there is merit in this, it can also lead to a lack of empathy. Some illnesses can’t be ‘fixed’. Being a long-term patient has taken its toll on my self-esteem.
At the beginning I used to think I needed to wait until I felt better before I could continue with my life. Now I realise that illness is something that I need to adapt to and factor in. We can’t spend our whole lives waiting. Illness and disorders are forever present and they affect us all in different ways.
I personally found the entire process of the project to be cathartic. It has been a number of years since those feelings and states of being were my reality and accessing them again through my sketchbook to generate artwork that could viscerally portray them was a challenge.
I went through a lot of doubt as to whether or not the imagery would be well-received or understood and if it was worth exposing my vulnerability. Ultimately I am glad I did it and I have received so much positive feedback as a result of it. If people can relate and it makes them feel less alone in their struggle then that feels like success to me.
Documentation and Dissemination
The project was photographed and disseminated as part of the launch and an official exhibition catalogue was produced.
The project is documented on the website of Sinead Lawless:
Project updates can be followed on the artist’s Twitter account:
Sinead Lawless was approached to be a guest speaker at the annual open day for the Irish Society for Crohns & Colitis in 2018 at The Gibson Hotel in Dublin. This was well-received and a transcript of the presentation can be found here: http://www.sineadlawless.com/blogpost/2018/10/27/portrait-of-a-patient
The lecturers at Trinity Centre for Health Sciences intend to use the artwork as a teaching aid to create greater awareness around the position of the patient and chronic illness. A number of lecturers have asked if they can include the imagery and words in their lectures.
Date of Publication
Trinity College Provost Fund for the Visual and Performing Arts
Health Promotion, Training & Education
Nature of project
Public art commission