Essex artist Matt Mackman’s dark dreams during illness inspire new art exhibition
- Credit: Archant
Artist Matt Mackman almost died when he was 15. Years later, he’s turned his meningitis induced fever dreams into a new exhibition exploring the fragility of life. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage found out more.
It was just a normal day. Hanging out with friends in town after an Ipswich Rugby Club Christmas do, the then 15-year-old Matt’s life changed in an instant. “I went in a moment from feeling fine to being violently ill all down my front. I went to another friend’s house who took one look at me, stuck me in her car, drove me home and then went to find my mum who was out. By the time she came home I was in an even worse state,” says the 43-year-old father of three.
Suffering a severe migraine, his whole body ached, he was running a temperature of 104 degrees and his skin was so sensitive he almost couldn’t bear to keep his clothes on. She called the doctor immediately.
“Dr Fielder, from the Otley Surgery, had contracted meningitis himself so he spotted the signs immediately. He said ‘we haven’t got time to wait for an ambulance’, put me in the back of his car and
drove me straight to Ipswich Hospital.
Recently, I thought I’d like to track him down and say thanks, but we’re talking 28 years.”
A lumbar puncture - where a needle is inserted into the lower part of the spine to test for conditions affecting the brain, spinal cord and nervous system - proved negative but further tests revealed he had meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia.
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For 24-hours, nobody knew if the comatose teen would live or die.
“My parents informed other family members and got my three brothers together; one travelled up from Cornwall, two lived locally. My dad, who worked for Trinity House and was captaining a ship, was airlifted off and flown straight to the hospital,” recalls the former Westbourne High School student, who received the last rites twice.
“There was a certain amount of fear which I think is understandable, partly because I didn’t know what was wrong with me. It was quite irrational now, thinking about whether I was having a heart attack, whether it was cancer. The repetitive dreams and stream of imagery during the lucid hours was bordering on nightmarish. I think it was scarier for my family… I was having the physical battle; they were having the emotional battle.”
Matt, who moved from Cornwall to Henley, near Ipswich, when he was a youngster before moving to Colchester at 16, remembers some of the dreams.
“In one, I was standing in front of goalposts, repeatedly kicking a ball over the crossbar. There was lots of black and white imagery; other times colours, very frustrating... A lot revolved around water because I had extreme dehydration (and didn’t) have the energy or the whereabouts to ask for water.”
Leaving hospital two weeks later, the after-effects lasted longer than the sporty youngster would realise.
“My energy levels were impacted, as was my ability to concentrate on a task for prolonged periods. I also believe it impacted my mental health for a number of years. I’m pleased to say I have overcome these issues... It took years to be honest, until my 20s. Looking back, I’ve got more energy now than as a teenager even,” laughs Matt, who’s lived in Earls Colne for the last 10 years.
“I had long periods off school and out of education afterwards, but I was very supported in terms of teachers. Meningitis attacks the fluid around the brain, so it’s understandable it would have an impact on some of that functioning. Some of the side effects people get - loss of digits, of limbs, of hearing and so on - I know how lucky I am.”
Matt had been interested in art from a young age and it helped at that time. “Although I take a totally energetic approach to art nowadays, then... Whereas I couldn’t necessarily get back on the rugby or football pitch I could pick up a paintbrush,” says Matt, who still plays low level football and coaches at Colchester Rugby club.
Meningitis made him realise how fragile life can be. He admits it made him somewhat reckless.
“When you’re young you think you’re going to live forever. Suddenly I had this shock that actually you might not, so I took on the attitude ‘well, let’s live today like it’s my last’ - which is a bit perverse because logic would perhaps suggest the opposite, to be a bit more precious and start looking after myself. But no, I went the other way and started living a bit of a hedonistic lifestyle, extreme partying.”
Twenty-eight years have passed since that day and, through his work as an artist, he’s finally begun to explore what happened to him.
“It’s not since I’ve sat back and reflected on my experiences that I have begun to make sense of it. Art has been a great tool to question some of the things I went through. I have begun to address it and turn the experience into an ongoing positive,” says Matt, a school organisation officer.
“I have always felt I am extremely luck to survive, but in one form or another meningitis stays with you forever.”
Until recently, December 20 was a day for celebration in Matt’s eyes. A day to realise how lucky he was. Now, that brush with death has given life to new art exhibition Inner City Circus.
“I’m a dad, you don’t always get a chance to mark these kind of occasions because your focus is on them, marking their celebrations. About six years ago, from an artistic point of view, I put myself through a retraining. I wanted to look at my own practice, how to improve it, to make sense of my own art. Reflecting on my own experience of meningitis at the same time seemed a natural topic.”
Influenced by the visions and images which plagued him as he lay comatose in hospital, rather than trying to replicate exactly what was going on his head, he’s sought to replicate what he was feeling and seeing.
“The starting point was that 24 hours (in hospital) where I had that stream of imagery, but also thinking about the deluge of 24-hour advertising. It was just forming a relationship between the two. It’s multi-layered, like within the dreams; just peeling away layer upon layer, revealing another image, revealing another dream and then putting little clues within my work.
“There are significant numbers to do with meningitis and the day I was rushed to hospital; prayers... Even using marble dust from a grave stone engraver and starting to mixing up my own paints using it and pigments.”
So it’s about life, death?
“Impermanence... There are a lot of billboard posters, that was a good starting point for me because I love seeing the ones that have been there and weathered. That kind of idea of aging, decaying and ultimately dying but not necessarily I have to say in a morbid way. For me this is not a morbid body of work, it’s factual or investigative.”
He’s spent the last three years honing a collection of 20 paintings melding street and fine art, using various materials and techniques from stencilling and varnishes.
Matt has exhibited, in some form, every year for the past two decades. This runs at Norwich Arts Centre, 1pm-5pm, Monday-Friday; 10am-6pm, Saturday; until February 20. he hopes to bring it to a venue in Essex or Suffolk after.
One of the paintings - containing among others, references to his days studying art at university, where meningitis can be very common - is being auctioned in aid of the Meningitis Research Foundation.
The international charity supports those affected via helpline, home visits and members’ days. It also has an active research programme in addition to the MRF meningococcus genome library, an ongoing research resource started with MRF funds.
“There’s no price on it. The highest bidder takes it and all the money goes to the research foundation,” says Matt.
Vinny Smith, chief executive of the MRF, is grateful for the gesture.
“As he is aware, meningitis and septicaemia are deadly diseases which can strike without warning. We rely on voluntary donations to fund our vital research into the prevention, detection and treatment of the diseases and support those affected, so every penny they raise by doing this race will make a huge difference to the charity.”