Prominent London artist Andrea Tyrimos highlights the intersection of art, multimedia and mental illness. When ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan traveled to Tyrimos’ neck of the woods, they nipped into her vibrant studio to explore her portraiture and interview her about her vision for healing the world through truth-telling art. Tyrimos welcomed ABILITY into her creative space and whole-heartedly illustrated in words her mission with this exhibition she’s titled Bipolar Picasso. As you read on and experience her art, you will hopefully feel her personal connection and dedication to this project as it shines through the eyes of each piece.
Lia Martirosyan: Thanks for having us here in your studio.
Andrea Tyrimos: It’s lovely to have you guys here.
Martirosyan: Hearing your name I thought, does she have Greek roots?
Andrea Tyrimos: Cypriot. Both my mum and dad are Greek; my mum was born in Cyprus, the little island near Greece. But I’m a born and bred Londoner.
Martirosyan: Have you’ve been to Cyprus or Greece?
Tyrimos: When I was young, we spent most summer holidays on Cyprus. I hadn’t been for about 10 years, and then I went last April; I had an exhibition there. That was cool. And then a few years ago, I visited a beautiful Greek island. Have you been?
Martirosyan: No but I would love to go to the islands.
Tyrimos: They’re really lovely.
Martirosyan: I can’t imagine the accessibility there. How does your mum get along physically?
Tyrimos: It’s only as she’s gotten older that she struggles a bit more. They said she might now have post-polio syndrome, where she gets tired very quickly. But she has a caliper to support her leg, and yet she still gets around.
Martirosyan: Let’s talk about your paintings. What really stands out in your portraits are the eyes. What’s the story behind that choice?
Tyrimos: I didn’t start off making a conscious effort to portray the eyes in any special way, but a lot of people comment on that. I think when I met the people who sat for the portraits, the one thing that came across strongly was the emotion in their eyes—a combination of vulnerability and strength. Also the lack of detail in the hair and clothing in the paintings draw the viewer in a bit more. So maybe self-consciously I try to get the painting to show the person’s inner self.
Initially, I thought they were going to be full portraits with the backgrounds filled and all the rest of the details. But as I painted, I had to trust the process, and I realized the figures looked stronger, and you were able to connect with them more emotionally when you didn’t have any of those distractions. You were confronted with just the face looking back at you. It forces you to connect with it.
Martirosyan: I get that.
Tyrimos: I paint portraits of members of the public and of celebs, so by stripping them bare of how their hair was styled or how they were dressed, it brings it back down to the fact that we’re all just people, united by our different experiences with mental-health vulnerabilities.
Martirosyan: As I sit here, they all look like they’re looking at me. Do you see it, too?
Martirosyan: You mentioned in your gallery that you had set up audio files with little narratives. How did you do that?
Tyrimos: For the purpose of this show, I wanted to meet every person who sat for me and to take a series of photographs and sketches of them. But then I quickly realized the story behind what they’d experienced was too important not to share. So the paintings have basically turned into art installations. Accompanying each painting is an audio recording. Formally or informally, I interviewed each person and then edited it down.
So as you’re looking at the paintings, you can put on a pair of headphones. There’s one for each of them, and you can listen to them talk openly about what they’ve been through. I was quite surprised by how revealing they were. I think it’s because I have a personal connection with the issue. I’m not a member of the press. I’m not a charity. They knew what I was trying to get across with this art.
Martirosyan: The audio adds another intriguing layer to the story.
Tyrimos: Yes. I put the audio on a loop, the idea being that you can pop on the headphones,
So I’m going to play you a couple of the audio files. This is Mark’s. He’s a journalist for The Guardian and also an author; he speaks about what he describes as his nervous breakdown and the first moments of the symptoms:
Mark: Things had been building up for me for a number of weeks beforehand, just a few weeks in which I just really hadn’t felt like myself. My vision was strange. My concentration wasn’t there. Things were swimming. And I had this permanent sort of knot or something in my stomach. It was around my 40th birthday. I always said life begins at 40, but not for me. I even sang a song on that day about life beginning at 40, but for most of the time on that boat I just had this overwhelming sense of panic, of butterflies, of not being able to look people in the face. I was starting conversations but not being able to finish them. And actually, for a lot of the time, just standing with my mum holding her hand.
Tyrimos: What’s great about Mark’s story, as you can hear, is he so beautifully articulates how he was feeling, and I think many people do struggle to express how they’re feeling. That’s why a lot of people can relate to his story.
Martirosyan: That’s wonderful.
Tyrimos: This one is Tory Allen Martin, a friend of mine. She’s a very good singer and producer. She deals with anxiety and speaks about lots of different things, but also with a particular focus on social media. Here’s a snippet from her audio:
Tory: About six years ago… I had the feeling like it was closing in on me, and everyone was looking at me. …I remember I’d worn sh*t clothes, and I didn’t have any makeup on. …I just suddenly felt like in the hall, everyone in there was judging me. I don’t think anyone was even looking at me, but that’s how I felt. I remember thinking, “I need to get out.” And I just went and sat on a bench. And the minute I got outside, and I got air, and I sort of sat in a place I wanted to be, the feeling eased a little bit.
Tyrimos: Like Tory, we all have those feelings of anxiety, even if it’s just a little seed in our brain. Again, as we were speaking about social media, which is such a great platform to promote mental health and disability awareness, we realized that it could also be quite detrimental to one’s self-image if we constantly compare ourselves to others.
The paintings don’t work without the audio and vice versa. It was a new thing for me, and I’m really happy I did it. I think by the end of the exhibit you feel like you’ve gotten to know each person. I’ve had a fantastic response. Many people have come in who have struggled with mental illness saying they felt a lot of comfort to hear other people going through similar experiences.
Martirosyan: What was the process with your subjects?
Tyrimos: The actual sessions went for more than an hour, but the edited-down recordings were from 2 to 10 minutes. I cut them so they flow like a monologue, so you don’t hear me asking the questions. I did some research into each of their personal experiences before the interview. For example, I asked the politician things like, “How do you think we can look at politics, and how could that help in changing legislation to help people who are going through this?” Or Leon McKenzie, he is a former premiership soccer player, and he’s now a professional boxer. It was interesting that a lot of young men could relate to him. You might think he’s this tough guy from what he does for a living, but actually he’s sensitive and vulnerable, and at the same time unbelievably strong because of what he’s been through.
I had questions, but it was an informal chat, and I think that’s why it worked and why they were so open. They could trust it wasn’t going to be sensationalized, as sometimes happens in the media.
Martirosyan: You said you had a personal connection to your subjects. Can you talk more about that?
Tyrimos: As I mentioned, several people who are really close to me deal with a range of mental health vulnerabilities and illnesses. Some are not comfortable being as open about it as they would be if it were, perhaps, a physical ailment, for fear of judgment by society. I find it heartbreaking. I feel like you should be able to talk about it. It’s often discussed as an invisible illness, but part of me doesn’t fully buy that, because if I were to say I have an issue with my kidney, you might not be able to physically see that, but you’d still give me a basic level of empathy. The brain is just another organ in the body, so it almost doesn’t make sense that we don’t have the same compassion when people are suffering.
Some people are opening up, but there’s still a huge stigma. So their willingness to share their truth was my initial spark of inspiration. I don’t know about you guys, but in Britain we never would say the word “cancer” until a few years ago. It was “the big C.” I feel like we’ve come a long way in regards to that.
Martirosyan: Now we say “the little c.”
Tyrimos: Mental illness is the last taboo, and a lot of work still needs to be done. There are a lot of fantastic campaigns and blogs and documentaries, but with this project I thought about how I can use what I’m already doing with my art. The art was a vehicle of expression, a different way of tackling the issue. A lot of them said that to come to a gallery and see a huge 50 x 50-inch painting of themselves and hear themselves speak was a cathartic experience, and it was one step further to them accepting themselves. I think the more we talk about these subjects, the less of a taboo they’ll be.
Martirosyan: Is there an actual Bipolar Picasso painting?
Tyrimos: No, Bipolar Picasso is just the title of the show. The title was my way of combining mental illness and art. But it’s not just bipolar disorder that I’m exploring. The illnesses range from anxiety to depression, to bipolar, to schizophrenia.
Martirosyan: When you do one of these larger pieces we’re looking at here, how long does it take?
Tyrimos: A painting can take me easily a month of working full time. But because I wanted the show to coincide with World Mental Health Awareness Day (October 10), I ended up doing the whole lot in four or five months.
Martirosyan: How many pieces?
Tyrimos: Ten. And that’s in addition to me meeting with the sitters, doing the audio, getting the interviews, sorting all of that out. It was a lot to take on. And now I want to take it further, perhaps tour it to different cities, different countries, because the response to the show was that it needs to be seen by more people. So I’m looking into it. And it’s something I feel passionate about. I don’t know if I believe the statistic that one in four of us will suffer a mental illness in our lifetimes; I personally think that even more of us, at some point in our lives, will struggle with our mental health.
Martirosyan: Or it could be temporary mental illness.
Martirosyan: Like clinical depression.
Tyrimos: Yes, at some point in your life. A lot of people may go undiagnosed and untreated. If we can talk about it before it gets to the stage where somebody has to go to hospital, if we can pick up on the signs early, whether it’s through lifestyle changes, meditation, therapy, or even medication. Because mental illness, as with physical illness, doesn’t discriminate, but the system can. If you aren’t lucky enough to have as much money as somebody else, that can hurt your chances at recovery.
A lot of people were shocked when Robin Williams committed suicide. They might say, “What does somebody like him have to be down about?” They clearly don’t get it. Maybe it’s a lack of education or understanding that those feelings come from something within.
Martirosyan: Yes, there is plenty of ignorance. So you sketch them in pencil first and then oil paint?
Martirosyan: When did the decision to make the pencil markings more prominent come in?
Tyrimos: It was a progression. I thought they were going to be full portraits; I was going to bring in some of this neon color that I use in model work and backgrounds and everything else. But as I was painting them, I suppose that’s what being an artist truly is, you’ve got to trust the process, let things evolve and say, “Okay, this is more impactful for what I’m doing, for the purposes of this show.”
Martirosyan: What’s interesting is that, especially now that there’s more of a trend toward bright colors, stripping it down like this is unique.
Tyrimos: Thank you.
Martirosyan: I’m curious, Andrea. Have you always done portraits?
Tyrimos: No. Years ago I would do the odd one, but I don’t consider myself a portrait painter. I do a lot of landscapes, kind of urban London gritty landscapes with a lot of neon and loads of color. This is very different.
Martirosyan: —I’ve seen some of the brick works you’ve done, they are wonderful—and the one with the giraffe, I forget his name?
Tyrimos: Eddie the giraffe. That’s more recent work. I do this camouflage thing where I take a blank canvas, put it on the street, and then paint the background of the street onto it, and you can then take away the canvas as a way of immortalizing the street. Street art meets fine art. Very different.