The Age | ‘I’m trying to crack a code’: mum’s brain injury inspires artist

Jennifer Arnold’s words unfold, like inscrutable clues, across her daughter’s paintings. Written in a flowing script, the phrase “déar Dé-light” hovers atop a floating envelope. In another work, words are painted in a lightly flourished style, delivered with a curious logic that’s difficult to relay in print, but works brilliantly pictorially: “we be ed-it! 1970’s again –again! inter–action! pal bearors ! our edit or palbearors pallbearers headers x meaning headors !”

Or take a medical letter from the Neuropsychiatry Department at the Royal Melbourne Hospital which has been edited with a dance of brackets and accents, crosses and ticks, exclamations and underlines. Within these paintings by Darcey Bella Arnold, the grammatical becomes visual.

While Arnold is the artist, the source of these writings, these technically incorrect words and corrections, are her mother’s notebooks. After suffering an acquired brain injury, Jennifer began editing words and sentences with an altered sense of language. Arnold’s paintings, while exploring how we understand and share language, are also distinctly emotive – they exist as a cultivated vulnerability exploring a shape-shifting relationship between mother and daughter, carer and care-receiver, artist and influence.

Darcey Bella Arnold 
Jenny by the sea study, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 102×126cm.
Darcey Bella Arnold Jenny by the sea study, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 102×126cm.

It began in 2004. After surgery for breast cancer Jennifer developed viral encephalitis, an infection which attacked her brain and left her with significant memory loss. While she can remember events until the 1970s – when she was in her early 20s – her memory spans only short bursts from this time onwards. “That’s why the 1970s features in a lot of her texts,” Arnold says. For the past 16 years, Jennifer’s husband and four children have provided 24-hour care at their family home in Carlton.

While Jennifer had no particular affinity for language earlier in life – she was a school teacher and studied high-school French – she began correcting words around her, from commenting on AFL promotional text to marking signs at her rehabilitation centre with a Sharpie. She’ll likely edit this article.

“At a particular point around 2006 she began compulsively writing,” says Arnold. Jennifer’s newspaper corrections could no longer fit on the page, so she began filling the notebooks that would become integral to her daughter’s art. There are particular rules to these edits. For instance, Jennifer won’t drop the “e” before “ing”; she doesn’t like words that have to do with health or have “ill” in them, such as “illustration”; she removes male subjects from language by changing “he” to “she”; she spells gallery as galary, which she explains means “galant artistry”.

Darcey Bella Arnold, we be ed-it!, 2019, (detail) acrylic on canvas board, 125×95cm.
Darcey Bella Arnold, we be ed-it!, 2019, (detail) acrylic on canvas board, 125×95cm.

Although Arnold has been a practising artist for more than a decade, it was only four years ago that her mother’s text came into her practice. Arnold was creating works on women’s domestic labour while also writing of her experience with her mum. She showed the essay to Jennifer, who corrected it.

“And then something happened,” Arnold recalls. “It just felt so visual, like a visual representation of what the story was about. I remember showing it to my partner and he was like, ‘This should be part of the show’.” Arnold exhibited the essay, with her mother’s corrections, in 2017 at Melbourne’s Sutton Projects. From here Arnold began to fully indulge the painterly aspects of her mother’s notebooks.

At first she remained true to Jennifer’s organisation of words, but over time has loosened to compose her own images from the text. Collaboration, she says, isn’t the correct word for this process; she considers it an act of appropriation that takes place alone in her studio. “It’s not a conversation we’re having together. I use it like a pattern. But I also feel like I’m trying to crack a code. It gives me concentration on the text I wouldn’t normally have, so I notice more things.” While there are art historical lineages that Arnold draws from – the likes of Robert Rooney and post-impressionism – there is an ethical consciousness that bedevils almost every artist but is particularly relevant for Arnold: the ethics of where influence comes from, of what an artist takes from another.

Appropriating her mother’s text “was quite a big decision”, says Arnold. “It was emotional. I had to really think about it because I hadn’t brought it into my practice before and it is quite private. I talked individually to each family member – my siblings, dad, and mum – about painting this work and what that would mean.” When Jennifer sees the paintings, she recognises her writing and enjoys the work, but doesn’t remember it’s Arnold who painted them; this fact is new each time.

In straddling the positions of daughter, artist and carer – all of which are acts of love, and all a kind of unpaid labour – Arnold’s art delivers a dignified space for disability in art, alongside revealing her mother’s own creativity. “My mum taught me how to draw,” Arnold says. “I’m creative because she was. So, you see, it just all folds in on itself.”

This article was originally published in The Age – Spectrum, 13 November 2020.

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