Toby Brown, Artist, Braintree, UK
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. For artist, Toby, this couldn’t be more true.
For Toby, putting brush to canvas is the purest form of expression – a release that has helped him through some of his darkest moments. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2009, he turned to his trusted hobby to express the loneliness he was feeling.
Toby joined a local art group run by Rethink Mental Illness, a founding charity partner in England of Mental Health UK, which helps improve the lives of people severely affected by mental illness.
Since then, the student has become the teacher. Toby, whose portraits are fabled for the incredible detail around his subjects' eyes, which capture the often-hidden side of depression, now shares his gift with his fellow artists at the group to help breathe life into their own creations. Toby’s own work, a series of exhibitions called ‘Behind the Smile’, is also giving mental health a powerful voice – and to wide critical acclaim.
He also won a competition to design socks for ISG’s Cycle for Charity bike ride, an annual initiative which raised an astounding £34,000 in 2019 for ISG's UK charity partner, Mental Health UK – giving back to the charity which has done so much to support his own journey.
One in four of us has experienced a mental health problem. (Health Survey for England 2014, NHS Digital)
Toby’s love of art was clear from an early age, drawing James Bond characters while watching the TV with his father.
Four years ago, after experiencing problems with his mental health, he picked up a paintbrush to paint three self-portraits in an effort to convey ‘the pain and torture of depression’, so often thought of as an invisible illness.
Toby’s family were moved by his work, finally understanding what he was experiencing. It led to an idea for his debut art exhibition – having struggled himself, he wanted to show people the loneliness of mental illness through his own exhibition, ‘Behind the smile’.
He debuted his work at a group exhibition in London’s Brick Lane, with a portion of the proceeds going to a mental health charity. He soon realised the power of art as therapy – its ability to send a message and create understanding, better sometimes than words alone.
His subjects include family and friends, but Toby also persuaded a number of well-known subjects who live with depression to pose for him in a bid to build awareness and break the stigma associated with mental health – names including Tony Blair’s former director of communications, Alastair Campbell, broadcaster Carrie Grant, and an array of well-known names of stage and screen.
Toby describes day-to-day life for people with poor mental health: “We try and carry on with our daily lives, even though this is how we really feel – we can’t just pull ourselves out of it. It takes time and a lot of fighting with yourself.”
He creates dark, intense art that is powerful to view, work that grabs attention and dominates the senses. The eyes tell the story and show the battle scars, he believes: “When I’m low I’m told my eyes become lifeless and empty, and that’s what I wanted to capture. The eyes can’t lie, they always show what the mind is thinking.”
“The eyes kind of tell you what is going on. People who suffer from depression might be smiling, but you just need to look at their eyes.”
- Toby Brown
Toby joined a local self-help art group in Braintree, run by Rethink Mental Illness, a founding charity partner of Mental Health UK, which improves the lives of people severely affected by mental illness through a network of local groups and services. Shortly after joining, the student became the teacher.
Group members could relate to Toby not only as an artist, but as one who also understands mental illness. Sharing his talent with people with similar experiences has, in turn, been cathartic in Toby’s own healing process. It’s also a real passion for him: “For me, there’s no right or wrong way to create. Each person is individual with their own ideas and that’s what I’m hoping to bring out,” he advises.
Mental Health UK has been key in Toby’s story, a charity for which ISG has committed to raising awareness and much-needed funds as its UK charity partner. The partnership, which runs from 2019-2021, aims to raise £300,000 over the course of the three years.
ISG was introduced to Toby and the art group in Braintree, putting their creative juices to the test through a competition to design the cyclist’s socks for ISG's annual Cycle for Charity bike ride.
Toby won the competition and his design featured pride of place on the socks given to all riders on the day – a proud moment for him and an opportunity to give back to Mental Health UK, which has done so much to support his own journey.
Toby believes that the mind and body are separate, but what you do with your body can have a powerful effect on mental well-being – a philosophy that the Cycle for Charity initiative aims to promote.
With 300 cyclists – made up of ISG’s people, clients and suppliers – riding a total of over 18,000 miles, the initiative raised a fantastic £34,000 for Mental Health UK in 2019. Riders took to the roads on 40- or 74-mile routes across the beautiful countryside of Berkshire and Oxfordshire to raise funds for people and families affected by mental health problems.
“It’s a cause which is hugely relevant for our industry,” says Richard Irwin, business development director for ISG’s Engineering Services business and Cycle for Charity founder: “As we know, poor mental health in the construction industry has been described as ‘the silent epidemic’ and raising over £34,000 to help those affected is a truly fantastic achievement by everyone involved.”
Behind the smile 2
Toby’s ‘Behind the smile’ exhibitions showcase a selection of his portraits which explore mental health in all its forms. Before taking the photographs from which Toby constructs his paintings, he asks his subjects to describe how they feel when they are depressed: “In that split second, they kind of go back – and I take my snapshots to work from,” he explains.
Toby’s creations, which feature well-known individuals living with mental health problems, as well as friends and family, are available to buy. He often donates a portion of his earnings to Mental Health UK. “I hope that my work gives something back to those who helped me,” concludes Toby. “I’m sure this exhibition will inspire many more people to use art to help them manage their mental health.”
Behind the smile 2 will take place from 10-16 September 2020. More information can be found on Toby’s website.