Why The Arts Matter: Lost Portrait Gallery

'Scientific research and visual arts practice' help bereaved families to cope with suicide

Recently, I was invited to serve on the board of directors of a local suicide bereavement and support group, Lighthouse, formerly known as PIPS (Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self Harm). I was delighted to be asked to make a contribution to the work of the charity. Suicide prevention is an issue that is close to my heart. I lost my father to suicide in 1986.

In my new role as a volunteer with Lighthouse, I attended a major Suicide Prevention Conference in Belfast. The conference was organised by Contact Youth Counselling, Northern Ireland’s leading counselling service. Contact runs Lifeline, a 24-hour helpline providing crisis support to people in distress and despair. Lifeline has received more than 200,000 calls from people of all ages, across Northern Ireland, in its first two years.

When I arrived at the registration desk at the Stormont Hotel, I scanned the attendance lists spread across the tables. It was clear that this gathering had attracted a large number of mental health and education professionals, as well as local suicide prevention and support groups and a few politicians.

I perused the programme with great interest. It was excellent, with a range of suicide prevention experts from across the world sharing their most recent research findings. However, one session in particular caught my eye. It was entitled ‘Suicide in Ireland: A Conversation through Loss with Science and Arts’, with professor Kevin Malone of University College, Dublin and visual artist Seamus McGuinness.

As I walked into the large conference hall, I immediately noticed an unusual wooden structure dominating the left-hand side of the room: a round room, of sorts, and inside, attached to the walls at different heights, were the images of young people’s faces printed on cloth. This was the Lost Portrait Gallery art installation. It seemed like a sacred space to me.

Later that day, Malone and McGuinness presented their unique research project to delegates and attendees. With Lost Portrait Gallery they have combined scientific research and visual arts practice in search of new knowledge and understanding of suicide.

The project includes conversations and research interviews with suicide-bereaved families. McGuinness introduced the arts installation, created in collaboration with families and constructed from donated images, belongings and writings of loved ones. He explained how he used photographs provided by bereaved families to create images from cloth, which were then exhibited in the white circular room. He calls this a 'Visual Arts Autopsy'.

Delegates at the conference were then invited to enter the Lost Portrait Gallery. It was a very moving experience. Many of the families involved in the project have found the exhibition to be therapeutic. One mother wrote of her experience of seeing the image of her 20-year-old daughter:

‘The most profound part of this Visual Arts Autopsy for me was when I went into the circular white room… I stood in front of her and I put my hands either side of her face. There was nobody in the world but us… I kissed her and walked out of the circular room and stood outside looking in at her for what seemed like an age… Three days later I still feel healing and warmth. I felt the best I have felt in five years since my beloved first-born child... handed her life back to God. My block of ice in my chest is thawing.’

This sensitive and innovative use of the arts had a profound impact on many of the participants at the conference. The Lost Portrait Gallery took us well beyond the bare statistics of the PowerPoint presentations. The project has been presented to the Joint Committee on Health and Children in the Dáil and the President of Ireland has described the Lost Portrait Gallery as ‘so very powerful as it is equally troubling’.

At the end of the day, as I left the conference I felt both informed and inspired. I learned that merging the arts and science can have a remarkable impact. I'm convinced of the value of the arts as a means of bringing the stigma and pain of suicide out of the shadows and onto the political agenda.

If you, or someone you know, is in distress or despair, call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000.