Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder And The Art Of War

Dreaming Genius co-editor Steven Maclean interviews ex-soldier turned artist John Mc Dermott.

John Mc Dermott is a multi-dimensional man. An ex-serviceman, a renowned artist and a committed campaigner in raising funds and awareness for combat related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As John shows me into his studio in Exeter Castle past the builders preparing the foyer for next months exhibition, he tells me he's feeling shattered, "I've been up since four this morning. I don't always sleep well." As I'm about to find out, this isn't uncommon for people who have served in our armed forces. 

John's own military career spanned 28 years and several conflicts, "I joined the Navy when I was 15 years old. That was back in 1972." Before leaving in 2000, he saw plenty of action, "I was involved in quite a few conflicts; from the Turkish invasion into Cyprus, to relief operations off the coast of Vietnam in 1975. That was really my first taste of large-scale conflict, which was quite exciting at the time, I was only 17 years old."

While still a teenager, John couldn't have realised the impact his naval adventures would eventually have on him, still interrupting his sleep almost four decades later. His stories of battles far away from home do indeed sound exhilarating, "during the Falklands conflict in 1982 I was onboard HMS Plymouth, one of the first ships to enter into the operational theatre down there.We took South Georgia from Argentine forces and that was the first time we fired in anger from a ship since the Korean war, and it was my big left foot that was on the trigger,"

Later during the Falklands War he and the rest of the HMS Plymouth crew were on the receiving end, "We eventually got bombed on June 8th 1982. The ship took four 1000lb bombs and numerous 30mm cannon hits. We nearly lost the ship." Fortunately, no one was killed, "We managed to save the ship, and save our casualties, and we got the ship back into action within about an hour after being hit." As incredible as it sounds, few people will know about the events aboard HMS Plymouth, because other news overshadowed them at the time, "Despite the severe damage, it was one of those stories that was never really told, because on that day another event took place. The Welsh Guardsman were attacked in the middle of a landing and forty of them were killed, so our incident was put to one side, but it was a big event in our lives. The whole conflict was a big event."

There's nothing bitter about John's recollection of how what happened went largely untold. He thinks even today it's the norm that much of what takes place in battle is remembered only by those who were there, "It's the way it's reported in the press; the next time you hear it on the BBC News, count how long it takes for the announcer to say a soldier has been killed in a roadside explosion in the Helmand province yesterday afternoon, and the next of kin have been informed. It's between about 4 and 6 seconds, then they move on to something else. Then the next day they'll follow up with the person's name, and that's it. Done and dusted. They're forgotten about until they come back in a coffin going through Wootton Bassett."

As he tells me about another battle he was in, this time the Tanker war - part of the Iran - Iraq war when he again faced surface missiles - I try to imagine what that must have been like; taking fire. It all seems so far away from the calm of his studio, but I still can't quite contemplate how a human being can deal with those kinds of circumstances. Can you be prepared for it? "The training is second to none. We'd turn anybody into an instinctive operator of the equipment they are using, so a soldier will think and fight instinctively. The British Armed Forces are highly regarded by other forces as good to have around because of the high level of training."

"But you're quite right. Nothing will prepare a person for the shock of battle. That's an experience that people will have to endure, and it will affect everybody differently."

For John, like many other military personnel who have seen action, the effect it had on him took the form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. "It came afterwards. I first started getting symptoms of trauma back in the early 90's after I returned from being a UN military observer in Cambodia, and at that time I didn't know what was wrong with me,"

"I was having about six panic attacks a day, and they were major panic attacks. I thought I was going mad. I also thought I was going to die. It felt like a heart attack; pain in the chest, shallow breathing, and feeling like I was going to collapse. That's what made it so terrifying. I had sleeplessness, flashbacks, and this was because of my experiences in Cambodia, but as I later found out, it had really been accumulated over years, and maybe Cambodia was a catalyst for me, but I still stayed in service, because I kept it hidden, and masked it as best I possibly could"

Didn't he receive any help? "It wasn't really recognised then. There were a few enlightened naval psychiatrists who were aware of it and were trying to do things off their own backs to treat the condition effectively, but really if you put your hand up to suffering from some sort of trauma, you were sent to Haslar hospital for a couple of days 'relaxation', lying on the floor listening to soothing music. Once you put your hand up to that sort of thing your chances of promotion were severely limited because they thought you were not right in the head, so it's no surprise that people like myself kept schtum."

Like many artists, John's work is informed by his experiences, "A lot of my work through the years has been quite representational, but I got to meet other painters, and one of them was a chap called John Craxton, who I met out in Crete and started to work with for a while. He brought out of me what was already there and got me away from a safe representational style, to more thoughtful art; art of the mind, existential art. He opened the door up for me that I couldn't find myself,"

"So since the mid-80's my work started to go quite abstract. I started to create my own themes, and now my work is very diverse; one painting is different to the next - or so it appears, it's not really, but it does appear that way. I always treat each new canvas that I work on as a different experience. Lots of artists now are very theme orientated, and keep painting the same subjects in a very aesthetic way. I use what's in my mind, and the things that have been in my mind - certainly in the past ten or so years - have been conflict, because there's a deep sadness in me that we still live in a world dominated by man-made conflict. So my work, while it's not anti-war, is deeply personal, and it does reflect that sadness."

"At the same time I'm aware that kind of work can be down and dreary, or not the sort of thing people will hang on their walls, but through the work that I do I'm hoping that there's that spark that's in us all; that spark of humanity, and that's that spark of hope that things can be better. You'd have to view it to get an impression of it, and that impression will of course change from one person to the next, but essentially it's about us as people and using art as a language to communicate ideas that are often difficult to express otherwise, and allowing other people to engage with that, which is an aspect I thoroughly enjoy"

So what does he hope people will take from the upcoming WAR ART Exhibition? "Well the exhibition has two aims. The first is to raise awareness of combat related trauma and celebrate the 90th birthday of the Royal British Legion, but aesthetically, for the people coming along, it's about seeing heartfelt, non-commercial work," 

"It's not just me exhibiting, 
the exhibition will feature a large collection of works from serving and former serving members of the armed forces, including selected works by the internationally acclaimed artist Raya Herzig and James Napier’s iconic sculpture; ‘The Abandoned Soldier’. It's rare that you get a collection of people who've had these life changing experiences come together to put on a show like this, so it's going to be memorable. It's going to be educational, or at the very least informative. They'll see something they might not have seen before, and I hope it might inspire creativity in others with a sense of anxiety, because many people in society have that sense." 

I suspect that John sees art as a form of therapy, "it's very therapeutic,” he agrees. "A person can safely describe how they feel on canvas, they can develop their feelings and move with it. As such they come to know themselves a bit better. Someone who is being creative generally wants to know themselves a bit better, and by being creative they can appreciate the world and other people around them far better too. I think it just makes us that wee bit more enlightened than we might otherwise have been,"

A warrior, a campaigner for charity, an artist, and I suspect; something of a philosopher. If the art at the WAR ART Exhibition is anywhere near as interesting as John Mc Dermott, it will be well worth a visit.

The WAR ART Exhibition takes place at Exeter Castle between the 18
th and 26th June.


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