Learning to Feel: how Tan Gillies transformed pain into art

Jackson Payne and Jack Layfield’s new short film tells the powerful story of artist Tan Gillies who, against all odds, beat drug addiction, domestic violence and a mental health nightmare.

How can someone learn how to feel? Really feel, away from all the commotion and stumbling blocks of, well, life?

This’s a question directors Jackson Payne and Jack Layfield wrestle with in their new short film, Learning to Feel, which focuses on the life and experiences of London-based artist Tan Gillies. Over a poignant six minutes, we learn about Gillies’ long road to curing his debilitating anxiety, first through weed – a temporary fix, it turned out – and then prescription drugs, namely Valium, to which he ended up becoming seriously addicted to.

The doctors gave it to me, so what the fuck did I know?” Gillies reflects in the film, sitting in a makeshift studio in his childhood home. Grainy footage of his artistic process is weaved in with snapshots of his psychedelic Icelandic landscape paintings, old photographs from misspent teenage years and present-day clips of Gillies working towards a solo show, finally at peace.

Putting brush to canvas has helped Gillies escape a childhood marred by domestic violence, mental health struggles and substance abuse. Learning to Feel feels like an authentic portrayal of this brutal rollercoaster, celebrating Gillies’ resilience and art, while shining a light on how damaging and addictive prescription drugs can be, especially for young people who are already struggling.

Now, Gillies is in therapy and has learned how to feel – properly – by taking things slow. Making art, most of which is inspired by his experiences, is a process that’s helped him find unbridled hope and strength.

Payne, a West Londoner who’d known Gillies since he was 13, and Layfield, who met him on the first day of filming, made for the perfect collaborators to tell this story.

Neither of us liked the school we found ourselves attending,” Payne says of his old mate Gillies. We bonded over a shared experience of suburban melancholic dreariness.”

First and foremost, addiction is a disease. I’ve lost a few friends to it and the subject just felt right to explore”

JACKSON PAYNE

Meanwhile, Layfield’s more casual knowledge of the artist allowed him to bring a subjective view to the film, which helped craft the final piece. It’s nice to have two eyes and minds on one project,” he says. I always prefer to work collaboratively. I think every project you work on with someone brings you a bit closer [to them].”

Payne and Layfield – who met while working together at fellow director Glenn Kitson’s creative studio, The Rig Out – are no strangers to tackling moving subject matter. Last spring, the pair directed Bapou, a fascinating film about inmate-turned-artist Johnny Costi. Like Gillies, he used his creativity to save himself from drug abuse. Learning to Feel felt like an appropriate, powerful follow-up.

First and foremost, addiction is a disease,” Payne says. I’ve lost a few friends to it and the subject just felt right to explore. The main takeaway for me, when talking to Tan, is that there’s always a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s easy to say and hard to make happen, but it’s possible. Opening up and talking to your friends is the first step.”

If Learning To Feel can inspire just one person to do that, then Payne and Layfield’s work is done.

I do feel like [I’m] where I’m meant to be,” Gillies says in the film’s final 30 seconds. And I’ve never really felt that.”


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