Anna Rootes is a London based artist and art psychotherapist. Her work depicts colourful and striking portrayals of animals, and expresses the deeper complexities of the subconscious. Her work makes us question why we are drawn to certain animals and what they represent to us.
After a tasty Vietnamese meal on a chilly February evening, we headed to a cosy bar in Shoreditch called Prague, which was a little quieter (minus the 70s music, but to anyone that knows me, I wasn’t complaining!). I was interested to hear about the inspiration behind her work and the part art psychotherapy has to play.
Tell us – who is Anna the artist?
Anna the artist is very much wrapped up in Anna the art psychotherapist. I didn’t realise until I was in the world of art psychotherapy how intrinsic they both were. I guess to explain a bit more, I need to go into what art psychotherapy is and how it works.
In a very generalised way, when you are being creative you’re working with the right side of your brain not your left side. The right side of your brain is linked to the unconscious; it’s where memory is stored and non-verbal communication. Before you even had words, those memories are stored there. What I see in my own work, is that art is a product of my unconscious. It’s a part of me I can’t escape.
When you’re creating, it’s your unconscious coming into the conscious realm. You are vulnerable as an artist.
When did you start to delve into the psychotherapy within your own work? And how was this for you.
There was a difficult year of my life when I took a year out of my training and was just an artist. But then I thought, hang on, I help other people come to realise what’s actually going on. I just couldn’t understand what was going on with my work. I couldn’t see what was symbolic about the brightly coloured animals I paint – what you see is what you get. Then, I realised that each painting is a product of where I am at. So, when I wasn’t well I started by painting little birds and little lap dogs, which are quite needy and completely dependent on their owners. I looked at my work and it completely matched my recovery. I went from lap dogs to painting birds mid-flight. Then, I progressed onto a lioness and rhino. It was insightful, like magic.
Even now, if I want to try and figure out how I’m feeling, I just doodle. Whatever comes up on the page is what’s going on for me.
What do you seek from practising art?
I feel a compulsion to paint. I do feel in touch with my emotions but there’s an extent to how anyone can label their emotions. There are so many feelings that you can’t make sense of through language; you don’t even realise you have them. Art offers another dimension to finding out how you actually feel and what’s really going on. They say an image speaks a thousand words, and it’s true.
When I paint I don’t feel like my conscious is vetting everything I’m feeling, compared to when I verbally communicate.
Is there an element of pre-planning with the animals you choose to paint?
I’ll have a compulsion that I need to paint that animal. But it’s only in retrospect that I relate any feelings to it. For example, I painted my big headdresses at the end of my art psychotherapist training, and my supervisors mentioned how interesting it was. The headdress represents a native American tribal tradition, whereby a feather represents everything you go through in life. It symbolises the hardships you have gone through and the paths you have trodden. They are also a symbol of healing, which strongly represented my life at the time.
Would you say that animals trigger certain emotions and inspire people to explore their own unconscious? (i.e their spirit animal)
I suppose I am offering a platform for people to respond to the attributes of certain animals as a way of identifying what they’d like to take on in themselves. So, for example the wolf might appear to certain people who want to harness that intuition or connect with that solitary existence. I guess if people have that awareness, you can learn what animals you respond to at that time. It is partly to help people get in touch with themselves and identify areas they may want to harness. I think animals are non-judgemental, and my work invites a relationship.
What would you say is your spirit animal?
I always wanted to be a hummingbird; I wanted to be vibrant and flitty. But I have since come to realise that I’m in fact an owl. The time when I wanted to be a hummingbird, I was actually quite insecure and didn’t know where I wanted to be. I’ve recently started doing a lot of owls because I realise that I feel more comfortable as an observer and a silent witness.
How do you decide on which colours to use in your art?
I don’t consciously decide it I suppose. I genuinely believe that I see in turquoise and purple! Sometimes I’ll set a palette up, say if I was to paint a tiger, and instead of going towards the oranges, I’ll go straight to turquoise or navy blue. I’ve been told they are quite healing colours. I find colour uplifting, especially since we live in such a grey environment. I enjoy being around colour and celebrating the natural colours in animals as well.
What colours do you resonate the most with?
Turquoise and you know that really toxic yellowy-green colour? I find it can be the opposite to how I’m feeling on the inside. I don’t tend to feel comfortable with dark colours, so I wonder if the colour counteracts what I’m feeling inside. A colour can communicate what I want to say to the world, without having to verbally say it.
If you were to describe your work as an emotion what would it be?
I’d say it’s a mixture of; dynamic, vibrant, engaging and fun. It has its own personality and energy, which is part of me because I created it. But I wouldn’t say I’m the loudest person at the party. It could be described as extravert, and even though it’s my voice because I am connected to it, I would say I’m more of an introvert – which is ironic!
Sometimes you can feel stuck as an artist, and it’s not really about being stuck, it’s about getting it out, so you can move on. It’s about the process.
What’s your proudest piece so far?
I don’t feel a massive attachment to my work, so I feel comfortable selling it. I have more of an attachment to the process than the actual finished piece. I consider them (the animals) to have little lives. Each time I do art, I’m creating a new life, so I’m happy for that little life to go on to live somewhere else. Although, there is one piece that I will never sell and it’s an owl that I did about 5 years ago. It has this crooked head and looks so caring. It means a lot to me.
Do you have a vision for your art?
I know that I need to be painting for my own mental wellbeing, because art has gotten me through some tough times. I feel privileged to know that I have my tool for difficult times. I’d like to get looser and play a bit more. I do feel a bit scared about going away from a final finished piece of an animal, but then maybe I need to explore that fear. That’s actually made me think now!
I’d like to exhibit more, and I’d like my work to have more of a social commentary. I’m going into art therapy work, youth justice and mental health so I hope that my work is a platform for exploring social issues or maybe my own personal struggles with anxiety.
I want to work with people to harness their own creativity and help them in a way that it’s helped me. I’m more amazed and inspired with art’s ability to heal. My dream isn’t necessarily to get stuff in galleries, I do it for myself because I want to be in a position where I can help other people. If I neglected my art I wouldn’t be able to.
What can we look out for?
I have an exhibition coming up in Clapton at Dialogue, which is a café and events space. I’ve also just moved into my brand new studio which I’m really excited about! I’ve also submitted one of my pieces to a summer exhibition. I’m keen to get in with more art fairs in London and exhibitions, and I’ve also got my solo exhibition coming up in May.
Where you can find Anna ..
Fun & random..
Summer. You’re outside and it’s sunny and bright. I don’t like the greyness of winter!
How do you find peace living in the hustle and bustle?
- Having my own sanctuary (art and yoga)
- Meditation and mindfulness
- I also go to the London Buddhist centre and practise 5 rhythms
A few things that make you smile and happy
- My cat Kingston (but he’s annoying because he always meows!)