Zara Bradley: powerful paintings exploring mental health, abuse and symbolism


Zara Bradley’s paintings contain a strong sense of narrative, documenting her struggles with mental health problems and abuse. Here the artist expounds on her artistic influences and the meanings within her artwork.

Although I haven’t referenced her work in recent paintings, Frida Khalo was a very influential artist for me many years ago. Her work will always have a place in my heart and psyche. I am also interested in feminist artists such as Jo Spence, Jenny Saville, Judy Chicago and Georgia O’ Keefe.

The image of the woman expressing milk from her breast with the plant life growing from her body references early mythological Goddesses of antiquity. Women were thought to have special powers because of their ability to give birth, have menstrual cycles, and breastfeed. This image also comments on breast feeding in public in today’s society. I have made six paintings in the Goddess series.

The religious influence in my work comes from my own belief in a higher power which is Christian, although I have an interest in Native American and ancient Goddesses.

I see my paintings as imaginary and real friends and family. I feel very close to them, which says something about my need for love and acceptance, but fear of intimacy and rejection – so I suppose they are personal but also universal in narrative.

The figure in ‘By Candlelight’ waits while a midnight candle burns as the Hands of Fate behind her seek to open a portal. The stained glass window in the Gothic building behind the woman shows a fleshy visceral symbol of woman in the form of an open vagina. The red candle could also be seen to represent a phallus adding another layer of meaning, in this case sexual abuse.

The two women who have been physically abused are painted on a larger than life scale giving added importance to the subject of domestic violence. Having experienced a lot of violence (mainly in childhood), I have zero tolerance of the above. The fear and feelings of being a helpless victim consumes your body and soul. However the vase in the paintings represent hope and strength to be removed from a despicable situation.

The image depicting medication in the background with the woman lying in the dark represents many years of taking pharmaceutical medication for mental health problems, but the portrait depicts a survivor and not a victim.

I’d like to continue painting or maybe making art that represents my personal journey in life. As I have been diagnosed with breast cancer and am undergoing chemotherapy treatment, my work is bound to echo the above themes and how this affects my mental health.

Jo Spence will be my main influence and inspiration. I will be examining sexuality, identity, personal experience and body politics. I will collect documentary evidence in the form of photographs and notes to work from. I will explore gender, class and health issues, and incorporate my hair into my paintings. Hopefully the future body of work will inform and help other women in my situation and also their friends and loved ones.

I’ve always been more focused on ‘developing the language of my art’ like a personal journey whereby I endeavour to make sense of the world around me through painting. However it’s quite important to have an audience otherwise I can’t really put my message across. This will be paramount with the future ‘Body Politics’ artwork.

Can a patriarchal medical consultant really empathise with a woman in my current situation? This is one of the themes I intend to examine. Hopefully I will bring awareness to my audience without being too morbid.

I feel happy to share the work I’ve done relating to my mental health as I think others may benefit from seeing it. Even if I don’t get feedback or recognition I feel I will have stepped out of the shadows and broken the silence by exhibiting my paintings.