Artwork Spotlight

Artwork Spotlight: Kat Gibbons’ Virginia Woolf preparing for her death in the River Ouse

In the Artwork Spotlight series of blog posts, The Layered Onion highlights a specific work by an artist in the community. These works could range from short stories to visual art to music and more!

Today, Kat Gibbons shares her piece Virginia Woolf preparing for her death in the River Ouse.

Kat Gibbons is a self-taught artist and Educational Therapist working with exceptional and at-risk youth through the arts. Kat works with multiple mediums and is constantly accessing new creative parts of herself as well as supporting others in accessing their own self-expression in a manner that supports healing, a positive self-concept and tools they can use in their own lives to stay connected to themselves.

Virginia Woolf prepares for her death. Art and mental health.

Kat Gibbons, Virginia Woolf preparing for her death in the River Ouse. Oil paint, April 2022.

Kat also took the time to participate in a Q+A with The Layered Onion:

How would you introduce this piece to folks viewing it?

I suppose this is a piece about water and the power of water to draw us in, literally, to the spaces in between, where we might find peace.  It’s also about water in ritual and specifically death rituals. 

What inspired you to paint Virginia Woolf? 

I am English, in part, and am drawn towards the waterways of England and Ireland.  I find a lot of calm and relief from grief in those landscapes.  I was interested in showing what might be going through her mind, as she prepared for her own death in the river nearest her home in Sussex. I am always wondering about these brilliant women coping during times when they felt boxed in by societal norms and expectations and how art sustains them for a period of time.  I also spend time exploring this idea of “Madness”, how it is crafted and cultivated by society and systems, and how divergent individuals of that time turned to taking their own lives.  I often think the sanest people are those living between these worlds of the living and the dead and I think the water holds those in between spaces. 

She looks so resigned and the background atmosphere with her. Her eyes are tired and her mouth is set. It conveys a lot of emotion as she holds up the rocks that will symbolically and literally hold her down. How did you approach starting and creating it? 

For me, the river was the central starting point of creating the piece, as it had to reflect the darkness and beauty of her own mind and she stands in contrast with her white skin and hand. I know that she was wearing her beloved fur coat when she drowned and that very much represents the vehicle for her death, in conjunction with the rocks she collected.  I think about the ritual she created by slipping on her wellies and coat to collect stones to drag her further away from her own “madness” towards some kind of peace. 

Anything else you would want to share about the work or your engagement with it? 

I’ve been working with death and dying in art as well as “Mad Studies”, which I describe as an area of study that attempts to carve out new spaces for the voiceless who experience mental health challenges by moving away from labels provided by psychology and psychiatry.  The intersection of “madness”, death and dying through my art has led me back to the water and land of my birth place and thus is helping prepare me for my inevitable death at some point.  I feel that our relationships to death can really shift how we honor ourselves and others, especially when we experience suffering and we can express this in complex ways through art. 

You can check out more of Kat’s work on her website and her Instagram – @kgibbonscreativeaid.

Thanks, Kat, for sharing this thought provoking historical piece. It really makes me think about how far the world has come in understanding mental and emotional health. Progress is power.