Artist and mental health researcher Rachel Rodrigues explores the connection between art and academia
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Rachel Rodrigues is one to watch! Not only is she an amazing artist, creating beautifully ambient paintings portraying themes relating to cultural identity, growing up in the UK, and mental health issues, but she is also a mental health researcher completing her PhD at Imperial College London.
Throughout her art and research, Rachel has found the two paths cross over. Mental health is not only a central theme to Rachel’s work, but her work also acts as an effective way to communicate her research. I spoke with Rachel all about these intersections and whether art can really have a positive impact on mental health.
You’re both an artist and a mental health researcher – do these two paths ever cross?
Many of the concepts within my research are interwoven throughout my art. You really need to deconstruct an idea in order to express it in a simple way within a painting and for this reason art helps me think more deeply about my research, while the psychology theory also greatly enriches my art.
I find that painting is also a very effective way of communicating my research, getting it out of the academia bubble to people who may not otherwise come across it. As mental health is something that affects everyone, it’s important that new advances in mental health research are accessible to as many people as possible.
“I find that painting is also a very effective way of communicating my research... it’s important that new advances in mental health research are accessible to as many people as possible.“ – Rachel Rodrigues
There’s also a lot of crossover in terms of the actual work, both are creative processes that involve developing ideas and working on problems that need to be solved – whether it’s figuring out how to effectively represent a complex idea within a painting, or trying to understand why people think and behave in certain ways.
How do you explore mental health issues through art?
Mental health is a central theme throughout a lot of my art. While some paintings explore this from a psychological or neuroscience perspective, others are more autobiographical and a reflection of personal experiences that my family and I have had with our own mental health.
“Mental health is a central theme throughout a lot of my art. While some paintings explore this from a psychological or neuroscience perspective, others are more autobiographical and a reflection of personal experiences...“ – Rachel Rodrigues
Summer uses an old family photo from the 1990s as a reference where we were in a more positive space. While the solemn look on my older sister’s face (left) gives a glimpse into some of downs that were to come in the future, I also like the closeness between us in the composition because to me this represents how we have supported each other.
On the other hand, Stronger draws from a theory proposing that the relief people get after self-harming could reinforce the behaviour and make the urge to do it even stronger. Any objects used to self-harm could also become conditioned and associated with the relief. This urge is represented by the looming, overwhelming shadow, while a knife is displayed, lit on the silk stool.
Do you think art can have a positive impact on mental health?
Personally, I find the art process very therapeutic, especially when my mind is active and focussed on lots of different things; painting gives me the opportunity to switch off, and in this respect helps me to stay more present. I also find the analytical side of my practice enables me to reflect and make sense of experiences I’ve had with my own mental health challenges, the dynamics within my family and how we relate to each other, and, on a bigger scale, how my family and I relate to the rest of the UK as British Indians. I find this time for reflection important, and definitely feel that it helps me to maintain good mental health.