Retired businessman creates moving artwork highlighting men’s mental health issues

By Davina Hyde

A 59-year-old retiree has achieved his life-long ambition of studying art – and now creates pieces depicting men’s mental health issues.

Paul Starns was not allowed to study art at sixth form when he was a teenager, as he was told by his teachers that “he had to take proper A Levels”.

Mr Starns worked for 30 years in the family businesses in London wholesale fruit and vegetable markets.

After he retired, he started doing pencil drawings of his friends’ family pets.

The popularity of his drawings gave him the confidence to push his art further, and he applied to The Art Academy London in Borough Street, Southwark.

Despite the difficulty of studying virtually during the pandemic, Paul has just completed a Foundation Degree in Contemporary Portraiture.

The Art Academy on Borough Street aims to make art accessible in Southwark and the surrounding areas and is passionate about championing art for all.

For his graduation show Paul has drawn six portraits of men with mental health issues who were prepared to let him paint them and tell their story.

He chose to illustrate each of his sitter’s stories in a different way.

One of his sitters, Peter is shown looking at a picture of a horse.

Peter’s teenage daughter, Molly, committed suicide.  She was, in Peter’s own words, “a beautiful, funny, gorgeous, little girl”.

Molly was also a keen horse rider and had her own horse called Rome, who led the procession to and from the church at her funeral.

In the weeks that followed Molly’s death Peter, who did not ride, decided that he would look after Rome, and found that he was able to find solace in the bond he formed with the horse.

Warren, another sitter, suffered a breakdown at work after returning to London after working abroad.

Sitting at his desk he found himself unable to move and was diagnosed with depression.

Mr Starns illustrated this by deconstructing a keyboard and pulling all the keys out, and suspended the keys so it looked like they were falling from the keyboard.

He said: “Mental health issues can affect your brother, your next door neighbour or your best friend, but many of those suffering will be unwilling to admit it.

“Not every man I approached was prepared to participate in this project. I have chosen to highlight this by painting the portraits of six men who are prepared to reveal their experiences.

“They have struggled with a variety of mental health issues, including loneliness, bereavement and depression and each has their own individual story to tell which I’ve explored through a secondary narrative artwork, connected to each subject through the line of their gaze.”

Contemporary British painter Edward Sutcliffe who teaches at the college, and is known for still-life and portraiture, said: “It was wonderful to have Paul in my classes at the Art Academy.  He tackled each session with real vigour and an open mind.  This meant he was able to learn fast and improve quickly.

“This approach to work has resulted in a fantastic series of portraits that tackle the hugely important issue of men’s mental health.  These magnificent artworks are current, ideas- based paintings, underpinned by technical ability and skill.”

Rob Pepper, Principal of the Art Academy London, said: “Having worked here since 2003 I love watching students like Paul as they graduate and go on to establish their careers as professional artists. We don’t shy away from emphasising the importance of practical and vocational training at art school.

“This time of year is always special as it’s when we transform our spaces for the graduates’ exhibitions, but even more so since the pandemic hit.

“I’m so happy we could hold physical exhibitions and there have been other positives, such as the continuation of our free online art classes, which we launched in lockdown and that are reaching more and more people around the world.

“South London is always our focus and as a charity I’m especially proud of our partnership work with Southwark Council, Better Bankside and schools, communities and charities in the local area as well as more broadly.”

Mr Starns is putting a group exhibition on with his cohort, next March at a gallery in Highgate.  The exhibition is based upon the residents of the Highgate Cemetery. Paul can be contacted through his website

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