Expressing Mental Health Through Street Art
Draping black watercolours across the canvas, something distinctly human emerges from his linework. His art is cold, dark and perfectly coinciding with the heavy metal music that he has playing in the background. From the paint, a skull materialises under the guidance of a steady and experienced hand. A skull is often seen as a representation of death, mortality and horror, whilst also being a fundamental part of the human structure. The skull is a reminder that within each of us there are dark thoughts harbouring. Thomas Readett has made a name for himself by unearthing this darkness and turning it into art.
Thomas Readett’s distinctive artistic style has allowed him to ascend within the South Australian art scene and take on the position of Tarnanthi, Education Officer at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Tarnanthi is an annual Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art held in the city of Adelaide. Through his work for the Tarnanthi, Readett has been able to teach and give a platform to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from across the country.
Readett’s art has been exhibited in his solo shows: “Beneath the Skin”, “Dark Light” and “From Within”. He has also become renowned for literally leaving his mark across the city of Adelaide, by transforming multiple buildings into works of art with his large-scale mural projects. Readett has quite the list of achievements that could only seem surreal to someone who has been obsessed with drawing since childhood. The man has mastered the art of creating good circumstances out of dark, ethereal depictions.
Sitting down to interview Readett at the Art Gallery of South Australia, you can see that he emits his passion for a darker aesthetic even down to his style, with his clothing being predominately black and an impressive set of tattoos that run along his arms and neck. This aesthetic is reflective of Readett’s passion for the culture that surrounds heavy metal music, horror movies and videogames.
“I’ve had a darker aesthetic since I was a kid, a lot of which probably comes from being a massive fan of Tim Burton’s work,” Readett says. Readett is also inspired by artists like Caravaggio, who work with high contrasted images to bring attention to the subject. Currently, an important part of his practice is he challenging himself to paint exclusively with monochromatic colours.
“I like to see how much I can do with the essentials and see if I can make the image work before bringing in colour, which I only like to use every now and then,” he says.
When looking at Readett’s artwork, you can see that this darker aesthetic extends beyond the physical colours and into the style of art that he uses. Many of the subjects of his portraits are captured in a state of emotional turmoil, either breaking into tears or screaming. Many of his pieces are self-portraits that allude to some deeper pain within him. Due to his own struggles after losing a loved one to suicide, Readett says he is inspired to shine a light on the darker themes of mental health.
Statistics from lifeline Australia show that eight Australians die every day by suicide and that 75% of those who take their own lives are male. Readett says we are now finally moving into a generation where men can talk about their mental health and he sees his art as a further expression of this.
“I’m a huge advocate for talking about your mental health and putting it in the public realm as much as possible” Readett says.
He believes that if we don’t talk about tragic events caused by poor mental health they are going to keep happening. This is why Readett uses his art as a medium to help evoke the darker feelings he has had and that others have shared with him. He believes that by putting them in the public eye everyday people will know that they are not alone.
Putting this philosophy into practice, Readett worked alongside Country Health SA at Glenside Mental Health Services. The Glenside institution provides emergency and crisis services, treatment for people with mental illness, rehabilitation and recovery services for people with severe and persistent needs. By spending time with and understanding the situations of various Glenside residents, Readett aimed to express their stories of through art.
“It was heavy, but a great experience in terms of opening my eyes to different stories,” he says.
His time at Glenside was an important experience to Readett as it allowed him to get out of his own head and into another realm of meaning.
Readett believes he wouldn’t have ever understood how much people are suffering in this city if he didn’t get that residency, which he believes highlights how mental health is not being talked about enough.
He believes that his monochromatic art can be a way to highlight how there are so many grey areas in mental health and use it as a way to give a vital voice to those struggling.
Although touching on heavy subjects, it is easy to see that Readett has a very warm and enthusiastic attitude toward sharing his passions with the people of Adelaide. Readett is an avid participant in the annual Wonder Walls Festival and has painted a vast collection of murals throughout Adelaide. He has painted murals on a Prospect Road wall, at the Seaford Railway Station and in The Lights community and sports centre, just to name a few.
“I love the challenge of street art, due to the sheer size of the wall. You have less control compared to what you would have with a traditional canvas, so you have to adapt and take your art to new places,” Readett says.
A mural project in Prospect, Adelaide required Readett to paint a multiple-storey building. The scale of the canvas introduced Readett to new challenges he has never faced before as an artist, such as manoeuvring a scissor lift between bollard barricades and having to use the windows as measuring guides to keep the painting proportional. His street art has been widely embraced by the people of Adelaide, with Readett being commissioned for more and more murals. The support he has received only further confirms Readett’s belief that street art is growing in popularity.
Readett encourages all artist to experiment within the street art genre. Australian cities have come to recognise street art’s role in contributing to a vibrant urban culture. With this, many city councils have established Legal graffiti walls and youth programs to allow street art to be practised responsibly.
Thomas Readett has such an effervescent and passionate personality when talking about art, so much so that it perfectly contrasts his sombre and ethereal paintings, which makes sense with his philosophy of expressing mental health problems and leaving them on the canvas to educate others. Through canvas and wall, Thomas Readett is letting the people of Adelaide know that it is ok to talk about mental health problems.
To see more of Readett’s work, visit his website.
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