'Life in the Shadows'


    The haunting images in Siobhan Purdy’s artwork speak of a life growing up in a world where she felt invisible.  During an inspiring ‘Pop Up’ art exhibition at Green Light’s offices the Redruth based artist described her experiences as a child with autism, a condition she said that was largely unknown in the 1970s, calling it the ‘invisible disability’.

It wasn’t until she reached her 20s, after spending years in and out of hospital, that Siobhan was finally diagnosed with autism.  It was then that she discovered her talent for painting, which was to be the beginning of a self-healing journey that continues to this day.

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Siobhan’s painting ‘Family Dance’ depicts the family gatherings at her home with her observing the family interacting, but always from the outside of the closed circle.

“My work is inspired by events and experiences from my past, from dreamlike peaceful times to the more heartfelt disturbing side of my life,” said Siobhan. Having grown up in Cornwall she was a shy girl who felt misunderstood.  She had hyper-sensitive senses and found bright lights and noises difficult to process.  At the tender age of nine she went into a coma caused by an extreme allergic reaction to feathers used in her pillows at home.

The artist said of her school days: “I learned to block out sound and I stopped being able to feel anything to the touch.  I was switching off and shutting down my senses.  My teachers weren’t sympathetic.  I was dragged from one place to another, I didn’t understand what was expected of me, but they thought I was just being difficult.  Voices and sounds were muffled and I couldn’t speak properly.  I was elective mute.  It wasn’t until I got a job in a home for the elderly, where I was forced to speak up, that I learnt to project the noise out of myself.  I would stand in front of a mirror and speak, watching my reflection.  That was how I learnt to talk.”

She started copying her peers as a way of getting through her school day, even when she had no idea what she was doing, as she recalled one event involving her bike: “I was asked to take my bike into school for a road proficiency test.  I didn’t understand why I needed my bike at school, it seemed odd.  I passed my highway code by copying the other pupils, I was lucky that no one asked me to go first because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.”  

Her life at school was marred by constant bullying, with pupils taunting her unique ways and leaving her feeling vulnerable and confused. “I never learned that bullies were tricksters. My reactions were delayed, I didn’t understand innuendos and jokes so I was out of sync with everyone else. Some were tolerant but others thought I was dumb.  I was just trying to survive everyday instead of learning, my teachers were not aware and would leave me. They never tried to help me interact.”

Siobhan had a natural way with numbers and would love doing her homework, often going beyond what was required by the teacher.  When a teacher accused her of cheating after she learned her 12, 13 and 14 times tables to earn a much coveted star and magic paint book her confidence was knocked further, as her efforts were scorned.  A friendly neighbour, recognising Siobhan’s love of maths, gave her a degree level maths book and she never had to revise again.

"My mum ran a guest house and kept a very strict routine which helped me. She was a golden mum.”  Siobhan’s mother was partially sighted, so needed to spend lots of time planning and organising the family home, preparing for each day, which was a lifeline for Siobhan.  Her home proved to be a sanctuary, where her mother provided a domestic hub with clear boundaries and routines which made her feel safe.

Like many people with autism, Siobhan struggled with social rules and understanding what was expected of her in different situations.  “My dad thought I was awkward and would say things like ‘pull your socks up’ and so I would literally pull my socks.” She  struggled with eye contact and expressing herself.  When her grandfather died she was chastised by her grandmother for not grieving properly and for acting differently to the rest of the family in mourning.  “My nan took me upstairs and said that I wasn’t showing my emotions like the other children. My behaviour was seen as inappropriate. I always had a fixed grin. I never got angry I just smiled to get through.  I sometimes think that autistic children have one emotion that they rely on to express themselves, mine was smiling.”

 Her behaviour was growing more unpredictable until she ended up in a psychiatric hospital where she was told that she had a personality disorder. “I was having rages and started to self-harm. I was withdrawn and hated being in the institution where it was like being in a cattle market, it wasn’t the right environment for me.

Siobhan speaking to Green Light's latest recruits, many were moved by her story which gave them an insight into the life of someone growing up with undiagnosed autism.

“Over ten years I was in and out of mental institutions. I got used to hospital routines and when I was let out there was no structure or support for me and no pattern for me to follow and my violent outbursts would return and I would self-harm. I needed structure and support to train me and help me make the transition.  When you’re in that world you feel isolated and it took a while for me to realise that I belong and that I do have rights and that I am allowed to have my own space, which is so important.”

Art proved to be a major turning point for Siobhan as it has given her the means to reflect, express her feelings and interact with the world as well as affirming her talents as a  much respected painter in her field. Her pictures are her autobiography, describing events that have touched her, some profound, others more humorous. They depict strong images of animals, such as birds, monkeys, dogs and rabbits, and shadowy figures, many reflecting past relationships.

Her artwork has given her the strength to speak out and describe her life and help others living with or caring for someone with autism. It shows great courage in a woman who went so long without her voice and who felt ‘invisible’.

See more of Siobhan’s work on her website http://www.purdysart.co.uk/

See a video clip of Siobhan’s work here http://instagram.com/p/lKa60RFDEC/

Bev Coumbe


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