Back in early October I was fortunate enough to work with a small group of artists (and friends) on an exhibition exploring mental health called “Into My Escape”.
We all had different art styles and backgrounds (I am an emerging portrait artist who uses biro as my medium) so we figured it would be interesting to communicate this complex illness in various ways using different mediums. I produced 4 portraits for that exhibition; each exploring different individual perspectives, but the most personal of those pieces was the portrait of Daniel Douglas, a young man who struggled with mental health as a result of domestic violence, who tragically died in 2008 aged 22.
I can honestly say that it was and still is the most difficult portrait I have ever done. My introduction to Daniel came several months earlier when the Into My Escape project began. We had met with Natasha to discuss the exhibition and how we would work with Free Your Mind to present both our work and the work of the organisation at a venue for an evening event. She kindly got me into contact with Mandy Thomas who kindly gave me permission to draw her eldest son, Daniel.
My initial thought was “wow” what an incredible honour, I have been given this opportunity to draw someone who meant so much to this lady, of course that was shortly followed with an internal monologue reminding me that yeah it is a privilege so get this right and don’t screw this up. Before I could get underway with the portrait I needed to find out more about Daniel and understand his background. I felt that there should be more to the portrait than simply me drawing a picture.
I knew how sensitive this subject would be to Mandy so I was reluctant to discuss this with her, instead I decided to get Mandy’s book; “You Can’t Run”, which detailed the traumatic journey she and her children went through, I thought it would contain enough information about Daniel. As it turned out one of the other artists had already read it, and she mentioned what an emotional experience it had been to read the book.
As I read through I got a glimpse of the person Daniel was, what a great inspiration he was to his siblings, how smart and talented he was as a personal fitness trainer, an artist and a poet, all this despite the things he witnessed and experienced. This might sound silly but I didn’t realise how harrowing it would be to read the book and find out what Mandy and her children had endured. I had watched programs and read articles on domestic violence but this book gave me an insight that I had never had before, and I feel it was in a way because of Daniel, I tried to see things from his perspective as a son and a brother and it really hit home how he and his family felt trapped, at one end there was a violent person who presence was always in the forefront of their lives and on the other the people who let them down when they were meant to help them. When I finished the book my heart sank, the family had overcome so much but at such great cost, when they lost Daniel.
I can only imagine the battles he was fighting and the fears he was trying to overcome, but I can understand that not all battles can be won. It was at the time when I reached the stage of the book where Mandy and the family buried Daniel that I started on the picture.
At the time the only thing I could think of was how important it was for this picture to work, that the picture captured as much of Daniel as possible. I felt that it was so important that his family and friends could look at and say “this is Daniel”, if I can get that right then this piece could show my respect and admiration for him, and for his family.
That mind-set made the drawing process quite frustrating, I would redraw an eye or mouth several times so that I could capture the smallest of details, I did not want to lose any aspect of him that people could recognise. It was an arduous process but in the end the portrait was completed. So did I do him justice? Did I show him the respect he deserves? Well I like to think so but I personally don’t feel I am the right person to say, I will always be my harshest critic and will always look for things to improve, ultimately it’s for other people to judge.
It is the most difficult portrait I have ever done but I would do it all again without hesitation. Daniel, my friend, I never got to know you in person but you have truly inspired me,