During lockdown, we’ve clapped and we’ve cheered, and we’ve banged pots and pans but we’ve also painted, cross-stitched, sketched, sculpted, sung and written. Anthony Gormley’s announcement of The Great Big Art Exhibition is such uplifting news because it recognises the art that everyone has been doing and displaying. How many rainbows in windows have you seen on walks? How many ‘thank you NHS’ signs written in bright colours have you passed? They remind us that behind each front door are people just like us who are trapped too. Already the people of Britain have been leaving these outward symbols of hope and thanks, and now the Great Big Art Exhibition is encouraging everyone to make more, featuring fortnightly themes with artworks displayed in people’s windows and gardens.

One Hunded Years of Lenni and Margot

One Hunded Years of Lenni and Margot

In my own personal experience, I have found art to be such a useful means of escape. Migraine with aura has been visiting my life since I was nine. It starts with the feeling that my hands are not my own. That I am watching them move with a nauseating lag. And then comes the vision loss. Grey nothingness flashes in front of my eyes like the after-effects of a camera flash. Then comes transient aphasia. As someone whose career has been devoted to words, this part upsets me the most. The best way to describe it is that even though people are speaking to me in English, it sounds like a foreign language and I can’t speak any more than short words chopped up into syllables. And I am not alone in having these weird things happen to my brain. The Migraine Trust estimates there are 190,000 migraine attacks per day in the UK.

When I was at university, my migraines intensified and I found myself on a bright morning, the day after a migraine (in what is termed the ‘postdrome’) feeling I couldn’t yet stand to read, or listen to music or look at the TV. So, I fished out my old acrylic paints and a bit of paper and I started to paint. It was a truly shameful attempt at copying Banksy’s Girl with Balloon on a rainbow background. But for the hour that I was painting, everything stopped. I wasn’t thinking. I was just there, stippling away (thank you GCSE art), trying to shape the back of the girl’s head without messing up the rest of the picture.

And that was one of the beginnings of my debut novel The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot which tells the story of Lenni and Margot who meet in an art therapy class. I say beginnings because there are so many other things that led me to write Lenni and Margot. One of them was Rankin’s photography exhibition Alive in the Face of Death which showed the defiance, the beauty, the vibrancy of his subjects, who were all living with terminal illnesses. Channel 4’s documentary My Last Summer taught me about the isolation terminally ill people can feel. About how humour never left them, even in their darkest days. My Last Summer was incredibly moving and left me crying on the floor of my new flat, which I had just moved into, and where I was feeling so lonely. And again, I took out my acrylic paints. This time it was a painting of a series of birds on a telephone wire inspired by a Pinterest board called ‘paintings for beginners’. And it happened again. My thoughts went quiet and for a few hours, my main concern was getting the shape of the birds right against their bluey-pink sunrise. I ended up throwing the painting away, but its gift to me wasn’t a picture, it was that time, that emptiness, that temporary peace.

That’s why in my book, when teenager Lenni and octogenarian Margot (who between them are one hundred years old) embark on a project to paint one picture for each of their one hundred years on earth, it is not so much about the end product as it is the process of creating. The opportunity to relive and tell stories, the temporary reprieve art therapy gifts them from their present situation in the Glasgow Princess Royal hospital, where they are both living out the very last days of their lives.

These days, art as therapy isn’t just taking place in hospitals, or in care settings, but in our homes too. We are speaking through art while we are silent. We are painting while we have nothing new to see. And perhaps these creations will become a lasting part of how we memorialise and narrativize the chaos that has been 2020 and is 2021. Or perhaps we will find that it was the distraction, the peace that came with creating that was the real gift.

The Great Big Art Exhibition may eventually become the largest art exhibition ever staged. And while we wait inside for brighter days, isn’t the opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves so inviting?

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin (Doubleday) is released on 18th February 2021.

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