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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Thorne



I have recently tried drawing portraits with charcoal, a medium I’ve always found to be wonderfully expressive and therapeutic to use. I began with my late father, then our eldest son, before moving on to a self-portrait – a challenge I’ve always felt daunted by. I have been overwhelmed by the responses to these and decided to write a brief article to try and explain what is behind them. As always with a difficult subject, my writing here is rubbish! Hopefully you’ll forgive me.


Last summer I visited my family in Cornwall: a trip which I had spent a number of years deliberating over. My 91-year-old mother had been diagnosed with swiftly advancing Alzheimer’s and my brothers were concerned that, delayed for much longer, she would no longer recognise me.


For many, it would seem extraordinary that visiting an elderly, sick parent might be a difficult decision to make, but my mother was the monster in my childhood nightmares. A profoundly narcissistic, infantile, physically imposing woman with a violent temper, poisonous tongue and a love of Whisky. It was impossible to ever know which version of her would appear next, failure was inevitable and saying anything was a huge risk. The best way to survive, was by being as silent and invisible as possible. Even then, the rages would come: I have very few memories of my childhood.


We lost my father to liver cancer when I was 4, Christmas Day, 1976, and it’s only in recent years that I’ve learned from my older brothers just how violent she was toward him as well. I don’t know if I remember him or not: I just have an image of him removing a splinter from my foot outside the cottage in Wales where we spent the holidays. I often wonder how he must have felt, knowing he was leaving us alone with her.


The visit to Cornwall was in fact fairly benign. Heavily sedated with something, she largely sat staring into space, repeatedly asking me the same questions with a fixed smile. That was almost the most disturbing thing. I travelled back to Ireland feeling confident that going there had been the right thing (for me) to do. But over the weeks and months since, it has become harder and harder to compartmentalise my past and focus on my present.


I couldn’t begin grieving for my dad until my mid-30s, because I remained in shock, and I always knew that, when our mother died, the loss would be extremely complicated. But now, Alzheimer’s has essentially taken her away, yet processing the loss isn’t possible. Something that I’m sure will resonate with many people. Grief is so complicated and so extraordinarily painful. Art, over the past couple of years, has become my way of processing difficult feelings – I have already written about this. Portraits almost feel like an inevitable part of that. The composition of my self-portrait was totally unplanned and took a lot of work to achieve (I have very little experience of drawing portraits!), but even the scrap of sketch book paper glued over the area that tore seems to have added its own significance. In essence, art is helping me to find my voice. It's never too late.


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