Anna Hill started running, jogging by herself at first, but later joined a running club. It helped release her pent-up anger. When it became too monotonous, she moved on to Thai kick boxing
Two people, says the sculptor Anna Hill, are always in her thoughts while she works. One is her younger brother, John, who died six years ago, at 20, from a drugs overdose. The other is her elder sister, Kate, who died at 29, two years ago, from a brain haemorrhage. Anna still sometimes wakes up believing she is cuddled up in bed with them.
John and Anna were particularly close, and she has had periods of thinking that her own suicide was inevitable. "After Johnny's death, I had the physical symptoms of a broken heart," she says. "I had severe body cramps and a lowered heart rate." She experienced recurring nightmares in which she was suicidal, but a pair of massive hands - her brother's - would hold her back.
John Hill's suicide had a shattering effect on his family. Kate wrote a book about young suicides, both in memory of Johnny and for other stricken families. The Long Sleep charts the doubling of the suicide rate in young men aged between 15 and 24 over the past 15 years. It features a series of interviews with the families of young suicides and with young people who have made suicide attempts.
John Hill is remembered by his family and former school friends as a creative and caring boy. He had a stormy but unremarkable adolescence. He dropped out of William Ellis school in Camden because he found it too authoritarian. He went on anti-nuclear demonstrations, worked as a community volunteer, and then trained as a nurse. But before his final year, while he was travelling in Europe with a friend, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He was brought home, and then became an in-patient in the psychiatric unit at the Royal Free Hospital in north London.
The siblings all wrote copious poetry, often for each other, and Anna says that both she and Kate were aware that John was deeply unhappy. She remembers hoping that travelling would purge him of the anger and distress he was showing before he left London.
John was discharged from the Royal Free, but died from an overdose of his prescription drugs. The coroner recorded a verdict of misadventure, but poems and letters found after his death leave the family in little doubt that John intended to die. In one poem, found after his funeral, he wrote:
I swoop through the lights
In the night
Smooth and silent
Pedalling like a little streamlined bird
I am dying.
Anna Hill started running, jogging by herself at first but later joining a women's running club. Running cleared her head and helped release her pent-up anger. When running became too monotonous, she moved on to Thai kick boxing. But, like Kate, she felt a need to help others. "When something happens like Johnny's death," she says, "you cannot avoid that caring thing."
Anna became involved with the Studio Upstairs in Regent's Park, an art therapy centre for people with mental health problems. She ran in the New York marathon to raise funds for Mind, the charity for the mentally ill. And she completed a new and monumental sculpture.
Still Like Dust I Rise is a full-length slice through an ancient yew tree, from one of the royal parks, which blew down in the 1987 hurricane. The tree had already been cut and left to dry naturally when Anna discovered it in a London timber yard belonging to Lea Timber, one of the firms now sponsoring her current exhibition.
Most importantly, the sculpture is dedicated to her two dead siblings, because, by the summer of 1994, her sister was also dead. Kate had a brain haemorrhage, caused by a rare and unsuspected defect. When she collapsed, her parents were away for the weekend. Her fiance called Anna. "When I arrived, I took one look at the brain scan and I knew that she was dying. I knew by the flooding," she recalls.
Still Like Dust I Rise grew out of a series of chances. Anna heard of a timber yard with a stock of yew and went to investigate. She was struck immediately by a human effigy she detected in the largest slice. She bought a small amount and went home to write a letter asking for sponsorship: "I'm very good at sponsorship letters," she says cheerfully. Her reward was several hundreds of pounds' worth of tree slices, including the main one containing the figure.
"I just got it into the studio," she recalls. "The wood had a strong aura about it. I was cautious about how I was going to use it. I felt it had a life, a lot of resonance. I didn't want to interfere with it too much. It had just been maturing naturally."
At the same time, she started researching scientific symbols. "It just occurred to me, one day when I was out running, to put the wood and the medical sketches together. I thought I would blow the sketch up. After that, the problem was just the technology." She programmed fibre optics to pulse along the life lines in the tree. A line of lights now pulses red from the heart into the brain and around the body.
The commemorative sculpture is on show in the Norman crypt of St Bartholomew's the Great, beside St Bartholomew's Hospital in the City of London. In September, it moves to Dublin for an exhibition at the City Art Centre, and will then return to a site in London's Docklands in October.
Anna Hill first encountered the yew as a sacred tree at the Dublin School of Art, where she was an undergraduate exchange student in 1989. She has continued to be fascinated by its presence in graveyards, where often the yew trees predate the church and mark a pre-Christian burial site.
"It's a mystical tree," she says. "It acknowledges loss, and grows wise and old by acceptance of the death within."
After John's death, she produced a series of studies in steel wire in cast epoxy resin screens which were taken from the heart trace she watched while her brother was in intensive care. When she was called to Kate's hospital bedside, she was struck by the similarities between the brain scan she saw pinned to the light box at the end of Kate's bed and the brain scans she had seen of her brother.
At the exhibition, Anna is selling copies of her sister's book, The Long Sleep, which was published last year to considerable praise. Anna's father, Don, who was reading the chapters as Kate finished them, completed the index, and Dr Keith Hawton, for whom she worked at Oxford University's Psychiatry Department, finalised the footnotes.
When John was brought back from France, Kate, who had recently graduated from Oxford, took several months off to live at home to be with him. She had just been offered a post working in a child study unit in Bristol when he took his overdose. When he died, she had a strong need to pass on what she had learned during her time with him.
A chapter of the book explains why: "The fears and difficulties faced by suicidal young people can only be exacerbated by lack of information and unclear expectations. When the present feels intolerable or the future inconceivable, death can seem to offer a solution. It is a 'solution' which growing numbers of young people have chosen in recent decades."
Anna feels mystical about the way her life and the lives of her siblings have worked out. "When Kate died, I kept asking myself: why her and not me?" She hopes her work will make sense of it. "Of all the people who come to see her tree," she says, "the bereaved seem to understand it best."
'The Long Sleep: Young People and Suicide', by Kate Hill, is published by Virago, price pounds 9.95Reuse content