Artist Maisie Broadhead, whose work features in the Paintings in Hospitals collection, is winner of Gender (In)Equality and Health category of the Global Health 50/50 Gender (In)Equality competition with her portrayal of her sister in ‘Take a Break – Zoe’.

The award-winning photographic portrait ‘Take a Break - Zoe’ shows Maisie’s twin sister, Matron of A&E at Whittington Hospital, where she has worked for the last 21 years, and where co-incidentally, Paintings in Hospitals has recently installed a new selection of artworks.  

It’s an image of my very hard-working twin sister, so a potent one for me.

Says Maisie.

The portrait encapsulates and gives presence to the emotional, physical, psychological strength, which was needed by the nursing profession, to endure the pandemic and save lives. It puts Zoe at the forefront, not behind the scenes, or in the background, as can happen sometimes with images of nurses.

The sisters’ story provides insight into the minds and visions of the clinical health-care provider and the artistic health-care provider, and a speculation upon how the two minds and methods can meet, and why it’s important.

They live about 10 minutes’ walk from each other, and their lives are very intertwined. Their children go to the same primary school, they see and speak to each other daily, about regular sister things, anything from day-to-day logistics, life, family and work. This became even more important during the pandemic.

“Every time Zoe finished a shift, she’d call me on the way back and talk through some of the day’s events.” During COVID-19, Zoe had two small children, one and two years of age, and whilst work was so intense, they stayed a lot of the time with Maisie and her two children. This enabled Zoe to have the energy and time to deal with the crisis at hand. So, although they move in different circles professionally, the sisters are very close, and they became even closer during the pandemic, which makes this portrait all the more intimate.

Their parents are both artists, so it was quite natural for Maisie to go down the artistic route career-wise. She felt she struggled a bit academically at school and wasn’t sure of her direction, but as a teenager, observing her mother putting her artwork into museums and galleries, this opened up the idea to a more artistic-orientated career.

Zoe made much more of a U-turn going into nursing. Doing a placement on a ward when she was 15, she loved it, and knew a busy hospital, with all the hustle and bustle and the fast-paced high stress levels working with lots of different people, was where she wanted to be. She did her training up in Leeds and then came back to London and got her first job at the Whittington, where she has been ever since.  

“It’s my second home. I had both my children there and all my family have all been patients there” says Zoe.

When asked about the importance of art in relation to health, Zoe comments, “all kinds of arts can offer a distraction if you’re going through a difficult time. To allow your mind to wonder off in a different direction. People can get confused and paranoid in intensive care. We try to use outdoor images, sensory effects, lighting – it’s incredibly important to the mindset of patients and therefore their outcomes. Art and health are very interconnected and the more we understand about health the more we can understand the importance of art.”

In “Take a Break - Zoe” the beautiful photographic image captures her doing such an important job, and the stamina needed to do it. “I’ve always been in awe of her,” says Maisie who has photographed Zoe many times. There is an added poignancy to this image as it’s from a time when she was doing an incredibly stressful job in critical care, studying, working long hours, exhausted but doing a job she loves.

“It’s quite a peaceful image” Zoe comments.

“There are moments it doesn’t represent for sure, as it’s usually quite chaotic. But back then, a five minutes break with a cup of tea, a magazine, a chance to breathe, was incredibly important. It made me happy there and then and it meant I was good at not bringing that stress home.”

When news first broke about COVID-19, Zoe was in and out of ICU planning for it. “We were waiting for a tsunami, and we knew it was going to be bad and full, but we didn’t know what it was going to look like. Then one Friday evening we got our first COVID-19 patient going into intensive care on a ventilator and it just didn’t stop from there, one after another. It was during that period I became Matron. I got a bit broken, a bit sad, as did many of my colleagues. I feel back to normal now, almost, but it’s been hard slowly turning things around.”

Maisie has other pictures of Zoe, taken during COVID-19, “Witness” and “Remains” – both starkly different to “Take a Break”. One of these got selected for the ‘In Plain Sight’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. Most of her work is done in a studio, sometimes leafed together like a collage, and very much inspired by her family members.

When asked how she felt about being given the award by the (In)Equality competition, Maisie is modest.

“It’s really nice to be awarded for anything I do. But if I’ve taken pictures of Zoe and highlighted the strength, beauty, courage – then I feel like I’ve done my job as an artist, sister, friend – and that’s the intention. It’s an homage.”

Find out more about Maisie’s work: here.

Read the 2023 Global Health 50/50 report featuring Maisie’s portrait: here.