Meeting the girl who turned her leg into a work of art when she was depressed

By Jess Steele

Amelia Halls is a first year Archaeology student at The University of Manchester. Earlier this year, she posted a picture of Van Gogh’s ‘Cafe Terrace at Night’ that she painted on her leg when she had the urge to self harm after a particularly rough day. The picture got thousands of likes, retweets and hundres of positive comments. I’ve read about Amelia on platforms from Buzzfeed to the Independent, but I haven’t got a sense of the person behind the art. Having arranged to meet her to talk about her story, I’m intrigued, but a little nervous: I’ve struggled with self-harm since the age of nine and was hospitalised last year after a particularly bad incident; so this is something very personal to me.

I meet Amelia in a busy café, feeling a little under prepared and unsure of how to begin. However, she immediately sets me at ease with a cheerful smile and an easy-going attitude. Plus, her hair is a really vibrant shade of blue, which is pretty cool.

I ask her about her tweet, to which she responds “I never expected it to get so much attention.. it was a little bit scary, it just got bigger and suddenly I was very aware of how personal I had been.” The widespread interest from it seems almost bemusing to her.

We talk a little bit about our personal experiences of self-harming and she’s very calm about it all, explaining that she started when she was about 13 and has been doing it on and off since then. She says that “self-harm is a habit, an addiction” which something I can relate to, and I’m sure many other people can. We have a giggle about relating to the feeling, but not really understanding the science behind it — the feeling of release. I then ask her about scars from previous harming, which she shows me on her forearms. I have struggled with my own scars and often hid them under bracelets, feeling very self-conscious. “I try not to hide them,” she says. “I feel like you need to accept that they’re there — They are a part of your body and you can’t take them back. Hiding them will only make you feel worse.”

“I used to count how long I was clean for, but not anymore. I just go with it. Counting made me so aware of it all the time.” Amelia seems like a person who is learning to be at peace with herself, but is also happy to try and help others with their own struggles. It’s something that comes across the whole time we’re talking.

We move onto the topic at hand of her artwork, and she shows me some more pictures — one of Van Gogh’s Starry Night drawn across her chest and some of her work on canvases. They are quite frankly, astonishing pieces of work, but her reaction to my compliments is modest. I ask her about the choice of Van Gogh, curious about why she was drawn to him — was it to do with his own struggles with mental health? “I don’t think that was ever conscious,” she replies. “I’ve always loved his paintings and for me [Café Terrace at Night] was a comforting painting, because of its tranquil setting and contrasting colours. He painted things as he saw them, not how it was which is something I also do in my work.”

Her own paintings on canvas are exceptionally beautiful, and I understand what she means about her use of colour — both bold and subtle, striking and comforting. I ask her what made her do it, and as ever her response is very honest and candid: “Painting never made me feel better, but it was something to do, something positive to show people. That’s why I posted the picture, I wasn’t washing it off without showing someone!”

I think this desire to show people her artwork instead of self-harming suddenly meant that she didn’t have anything to hide or feel ashamed of (as people often do after cutting themselves). “Depression decreases [one’s] interest in everything, so finding motivation and a distraction was really useful for me.” Instead she has something beautiful to show, something to be proud of.

When talking to Amelia about how other students like her can manage their mental health at University, she says “If you’re open about it, you feel able to get help. My close friends (at home and university) are aware, and support and encourage me to get help”. We also talk about other coping strategies, and have another laugh about the rubber-band method (snapping a rubber band on your wrist when you want to harm yourself).

“I’ve always had paint available, art has always been there. Sometimes I go for walks, to clear my head” she says. The pressure of ‘getting better’, is an easy trap to fall into when you’re struggling. However, she is also a strong believer in getting help — “self-support only works to an extent, my painting is something nice to do, it helps but it won’t fully support me, it won’t help me fully overcome [depression]”.

I ask her then if she’s had a ‘turning point’ in her mental health struggles, a point when she realised that getting help was okay. She calls it a “progression of being open” with others around her. “The internet helped, it’s very open about mental health”. She’s right- none of this would be possible without social media, as that’s where she showed off her artwork. “it can be a great thing to spread positivity” she says, and I think that’s something we should remember. As much as it can be a den of negativity, the internet can also show us so much positivity and strength, just like Amelia’s story.

She’s also very positive about moving to university. “Freshers was hard, but I don’t want to dwell on that, I want to think about it as a time when I let myself have bad days — something that I didn’t have the freedom to do before I moved here — but also to have good days. Most of my days are a mixture of good and bad, and that’s okay. But before, it was more black and white, there were good or bad days. It’s the freedom to just have a Netflix day that helps me a lot!”

Everything she’s said to me has resonated so much and I’m so pleased I have been given the opportunity to meet this girl. I agree with so much of what she has said and what she believes in, but it’s more than that. It’s nice to see a positive story, a positive person who has her battles but is working through them in the way that is best for her: a mixture of self-support, counselling and medication. I ask her for a concluding quote, something to summarise everything she has said: “I’m glad I did it, I’m glad it’s spread, it was worth the few days of anxiety to know that I may have helped someone in the long run.”

There’s no ‘may’ have helped. She definitely has. Even if the only person she has helped is me, because after a truly horrible week I left the interview with a smile on my face and skipped home to write up her story.

If you liked Amelia’s art, you can see more of it here.

This article discusses serious mental health issues. If you are having suicidal thoughts or feel that you are a danger to yourself, you can call the Samaritans 24/7 free hotline on 116 123

About the writer:

Jess is an English Literature student at the University of Manchester. She writes about her personal experiencesIn her free time, she enjoys writing poetry and has a million and a half story ideas. She also loves animals and finds horse riding to be a deeply therapeutic experience.

Jess Steele