Shaftesbury Artist’s Expressive Art Course Aims To Improve Mental Wellbeing

If you face mental health challenges, a Shaftesbury artist is offering to share the creative techniques she uses to improve her wellbeing. Maaike Pope tells Keri Jones that her course will teach the methods that better help her to deal with life’s situations.

Maaike’s passion for art is evident as soon as you step into the front room of her end-of-terrace home on a Shaftesbury housing estate. The living room is clearly an artist’s workspace, filled with paints, charcoals, rags, pencils and pots of brushes. Maaike had been busy at work when I called in. She rubbed a rag to remove paint from her fingers as she greeted me then I was given a quick tour of some of her artwork, displayed on her front room’s walls.

Maaike explained how she uses her brush to convey her innermost thoughts. “This is about expressing my feelings about my divorce,” said Maaike, as she showed me two pictures both featuring colourful swirls of paint running into darker more sombre tones. “There’s a lot of strong contrast in colours, shapes and forms. It is a kind of timeline. You can see this looks like an explosion,” she said, as she pointed to a part of the canvas pummelled with black paint. She said that spot represented the day her decree nisi came through.

Maaike Pope

Maaike compared this thought-provoking, rather perplexing painting with the recognisable, gentle landscape of Wardour Woods, captured in a third painting. The scenery of the Wiltshire countryside was presented as a calming, sleepy, leafy scene of sloping green fields leading up to woodland. It was hung on the opposite wall of her front room and yet seemed a world away. “If you can do proportions and make the right colours you can paint a landscape. With emotions, it is a different thing,” Maaike explained. “You try to listen to your hand instead of your head. You do all kinds of exercises, so you don’t focus on your head, but you just ‘do’. For a lot of people, it is difficult.”

We walked a few metres to the front of her living room, where she showed me two more colourful pieces she’d been painting on a table, in the fading daylight beneath the window before my arrival. She revealed she’d been worried about the impending Alfred interview and this artwork helped Maaike tackle her anxiety. “I just did this very quickly,” she said.

“Is this happy, organised or balanced, quiet or something else?” she asked me. I replied that the painting looked rather turbulent, similar to a magma field with lots of red and yellow splashes and a lot of blacks. It resembled a volcanic eruption “That is basically how I feel a bit, because I’m so anxious,” Maaike said.

I apologised for making her feel like an erupting volcano, which can’t be good. “Oh, that’s how I am. Suddenly I think, ‘Do I have to do this? Do I cancel? No, you don’t. You just go on and do it’,” Maaike said. The art had helped her stick to her plans.

Maaike explained that she had been on a geographic and career journey before settling in Shaftesbury and becoming a full-time artist. She’s lived and worked in her native Netherlands as well as Brazil and Portugal. “I used to teach Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch. That was in Amsterdam, where I was born,” said Maaike. “I taught primary school children. I’ve always been busy with art but not extensively.”

She had been working with farmers in Portugal, but that work dried up after the devastating 2003 forest fires. Maaike returned to Holland and then headed to Shaftesbury with her now ex-husband, who hailed from our area. It was then that Maaike embraced art as a mental health resource and her talent was recognised soon after.

“I started in therapy and then in 2015, I had my first painting in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. When you are passionate about something, you go for it,” Maaike said. “Of course, I still can’t make an income with my paintings, so I do all kinds of other jobs. You have to be known and famous to live off art.”

Self-taught artist Maaike is uncertain whether living in a rural area like ours puts her at a disadvantage compared to city-based creatives. There are more potential art buyers within a short distance of London or Amsterdam. “I seem to be selling art easier in the cities rather than the countryside. If you look at abstract work, maybe it’s more trendy in the cities. I don’t know,” Maaike mused.

Despite having her talent spotted and having also exhibited at Bath’s Victoria Gallery and the South West Academy of Fine Arts, it’s not been easy making a living, and displaying work to prospective buyers can prove pricey. “People forget what a struggle it is to get into an art fair. You pay £1,500 for two days and an evening. A lot of people who don’t have a lot of means don’t try because it’s too much of a risk financially,” she said.

Maaike’s art course has been designed to help people communicate their emotions on paper or canvas, when it’s too difficult to put those feelings into words. “Say you are angry,” Maaike suggested, “But you don’t even notice it because your first response is ‘inside yourself’, because you never want to hurt anybody. You don’t express your anger and you don’t even notice it is there until you get conscious about it.”

Maaike told me that when she feels distressed, channelling her feelings through art makes her feel better. “That’s exactly why I like it. I use the painting for my mental wellbeing. I’ve had a lot of therapy in my life and I started drawing things when I couldn’t talk about it or found it hard to explain actually what I felt. It was easier to just draw something and show it,” she said.

Her course students will be encouraged to view each other’s expressive art at the end of each session, so they can better understand this form of art and other people’s emotions. “If you take the feeling of being lonesome, you could have a very small black dot in a very big white field. Somebody else would express that differently,” said Maaike. “You look at each other’s work and learn from each other. I hope everybody enjoys doing it, learning a little bit more about themselves and, at the same time, they learn about certain painting techniques.”

Although Maaike stresses that she is not a psychotherapist, she says the sessions are designed for people who want to cope better. “It’s no good coming to the course if you want to draw landscapes or portraits or a nude, because we’re not going to do that,” she said. “The course is for people who would either benefit by being able to express their feelings or emotions in a different way, or people who are just curious about their own emotions and how to work on them on paper.”

Maaike is hosting a series of five classes – fifteen hours of teaching – for up to twelve students. Each session lasts three hours. Over the weeks she will explain artists’ tools and the principles of contrast and proportion, colour and symbolism.

There are two venues – Shaftesbury’s Lindlar Hall is being used on Wednesday evenings, between 7pm and 10pm with sessions beginning on 18th March, while an alternative Monday afternoon session begins on 16th March at Hindon Hall. There’ll be a break for the Bank Holiday.

The course costs £125 including materials and refreshments. You can book through Maaike’s website.