Esme is a 26 year old who, following significant trauma, has heard voices for around half her life. She has been using art in many forms for around eight years in order to cope with and work alongside a multitude of voices, many of whom are violent and highly distressing at times. Her art is often sculptural or of a textile nature, though she also enjoys writing poetry.

Please tell us about this piece of work. How is it linked to your experience of hearing voices?

Shrine is a three-dimensional mixed-media work created over a period of weeks. It began as a shrine to myself and a way of honouring the person I was at the time, but quickly became a shrine to my relationship with my voices more than anything else. This relationship is changeable, I suppose that is the case with any relationship, but at the time of making the piece I was struggling a lot with the idea that I could never just be me – I am always influenced by the voices and never alone. It felt a lot like I could never escape their presence and even the most personal of times are not solely mine to enjoy.

When making Shrine I intentionally created a house-like structure with separate rooms and levels so that I could isolate myself from my voices. However, I found that this was impossible – as I do not exist outside of my art without the voices, I could not exist without the voices within the art either. While there are explicit representations of my voices and myself within Shrine in the form of stitched and drawn portraits and a sculpted human form, there are also many more hidden and veiled representations of how we are connected and exist as a collective of presences. For example, the colour red is repeated throughout the piece and is symbolic of a particular voice who seeps like blood into seemingly every aspect of my life but who also has shaped me through his existence. To outsiders who know only part of the story it may not be obvious, but to me the red cloth is a mark of his significance and the dual edge of his presence – both smothering me in fear, yet also comforting me with familiarity.

Shrine is a complex piece and very personal to me, over the course of its creation I feel my relationship with two of my voices shifted once more into a place where I could accept their position in my life. I may not always be able to hold this acceptance, but Shrine is a permanent nod toward my connection and coexistence with my voices.

How (if at all) does making art help you cope with or explore your voices?

Through making art in many forms I process what my voices are saying to me. If I am able to make art then it means I am able to deal with whatever they throw at me. Sometimes my voices overwhelm me with their presence and I struggle to create meaningful work – or any work at all – but eventually I find it within myself to come back to making art and it is then that I can learn and explore alongside my voices. Art for me is not an escape from life with voices. It is more important than that because it is an opportunity to connect more meaningfully with them and eventually come to terms with the messages they have for me. My voices often berate me for not being honest with myself about how I am feeling but when making art I seem to tune into my emotions and ideas better and they sometimes respond well to that which makes it easier to cope with them. Much of my artwork is about my voices, directly or indirectly, and it is through art that I try to understand them and their presence in my life. It also gives me a sense of my own worth within the equation that we exist and gives me a chance to state my mind in way that feels safe for me when often that feels risky.

What role do your voices play in the creative process? Do they inspire you or do they sometimes ‘get in the way’?

My voices aren’t exactly an inspiration to me, not in the traditional sense. They don’t provide ideas directly or show me what to create, though they always have their opinions on things. But they are a source of material to work with. The things they say and the way they make me feel often feature in my art and in that respect,  they do provide me with something with which to create original art. Without my voices I’m not sure if I would create in the same way; I don’t know if it would be such a necessity for me to make art if I didn’t hear the voices and I certainly don’t think I would make such personal work. But the flipside is that sometimes my voices persuade me I am inherently uncreative, that it is only because of them that I have made the work I have so far. And often I am unable to create because of fear of how my voices will react, or the power that they hold – the ability to take away the only coping mechanism I have. Sometimes when the voices are so intense, and I am overwhelmed with fear and disgust at my existence, I feel completely unable to create anything (even though it is at these points that I would benefit most from being able to process what is going on). So, my voices both give and take away from the creative process. More often than not, I return to creating art at some point, be that visual art or poetry, but in the times that my voices make this inaccessible it can feel like my life is unbearable. I think this is because art provides me with a fresh way of being each time I engage with creating something – in the moments I am being creative my voices are not the primary focus of my life: the art is, even if the art is somehow about them.

What’s your advice to other voice-hearers thinking of using creative activities as a means of coping with or exploring their experiences?

I would say that you need to be prepared to be vulnerable. Making art with voices can be difficult and make things feel more fragile because they are bound to have an opinion. But I try to balance my voices’ opinions and needs with my own. When creating Shrine they had a lot to offer in terms of what to include, but I have learnt to be assertive and state through creating what I feel safe to portray through the art. If creativity feels like it might be helpful, I’d say it probably will be, but just be aware that sometimes it can feel worse before it feels any better. I’d also say that it’s important to choose a method of creativity that feels right, it might not be what you initially think. I find things that take a long time are better for me as they give me time to work through stuff with my voices at the same time as creating. So, for me sewing is better than painting as it is more time consuming, but I do vary my practice quite a lot so that I am responding to my voices and myself most appropriately. It must feel as right as possible for all of us in order for it to achieve anything positive. Finally, to all voice hearers thinking of using creativity to cope with or explore their voices I would say don’t give up if your voices say you’re no good at whatever you are trying, ultimately I’ve decided it doesn’t matter if I’m any good or not as long as what I make serves a purpose to me and hopefully my voices.

Mixed-media sculpture by Esme titled 'Shrine'


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