Artist Tessa Farmer Discusses Battling Anxiety and Depression

12/10/2016 09:12


It was World Mental Health Day on Monday, and it has opened up a dialogue about a subject that just doesn't seem to be talked about nearly enough.

One of the greatest things to come from hearing people discussing their own battles with mental health has been the inspiring tales of how they've coped, overcome or manifested the difficulties they face daily into something positive.

Take for example the work of Birmingham-born artist Tessa Farmer. The 38-year-old creates some intricate and fascinating pieces of art, each telling a story of plight and battle between small fairies and insects that they seek to outsmart. In many ways, the stories she creates reflect her life. Tessa was bullied through school, and when she was 16, she became psychologically mute after being teased about her voice.

She explains: "I was bullied at both primary and secondary school, which over the years eroded my self-esteem. I believed I was worthless and defective, and eventually the bullying voices became internalised. I became more and more withdrawn, and at university I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

"Art was my source of confidence and self-worth. It gave me drive, purpose and joy. I found the repetitive process of making to be therapeutic, it allowed my mind to access imaginary worlds like those I retreated to during childhood play. This proved welcome escapism from an often constant barrage of negative thoughts."

Tessa uses real insects to craft her stories, reanimating them into something fantastical. The small fairies are crafted from plant roots and insect wings, and in the artworks, they're portrayed as a 'sophisticated predatory species'. I ask why Tessa chose to work with small creatures.

"They are an endlessly fascinating source of inspiration and wonder and I'll never stop learning about them. I've also been lucky to work with entomologists at the Natural History Museum who have such infectious enthusiasm for their subject.


"I pick the insects up from the streets in spring and summer - I never kill them. I always have a small container with me, like a Tic Tac box, for such treasures. It's a fun, although potentially embarrassing, pursuit! Friends, family and neighbours also find creatures for me. It's quite addictive.

"When I got married, for our wedding, we asked for dead stuff or John Lewis vouchers! I must say, I had quite a haul from that including a shoe box full of honeybees, collected dead from an apiary, a box of taxidermy ducklings, a shed snake skin and a scorpion. I also buy old insect collections from eBay and exotic insects from sustainable sources."

This artistic imagination and creativity runs in Tessa's family. After she started making her fairies, she discovered that her great-grandfather was Arthur Machen, the famous Victorian fantasy and horror author. Strangely, a theme in his books had been black fairies too.

Tessa's work is currently being exhibited at the Griffin Gallery in west London, in the group exhibition Perfectionism III: The Alchemy of Making (and will be until November 18 if you find yourself in that neck of the woods).