An Artist’s exploration into Frailty in older people

Katy Shorttle is a GP trainee in Cambridge and part time artist. She tweets @ArtistKaty. Here she tells us about her art project on frailty, using teacups to conceptualise case studies of older people with frailty.

teacupsMy frailty awareness art project comprises a set of 15 individual sculptures, each with accompanying case studies, with the primary aim of raising the awareness of the experiences of frailty in older people. I have been able to combine my GP training with the completion of a Masters in Illustration, and completed the project, my final MA Illustration project, after spending a year working as a GP trainee in the Department of Medicine for the Elderly in Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. During this time and my previous posts in primary and secondary care I have observed how changes in the structure of families and communities can mean intergenerational relations are less common, or less well preserved, and the plight of a frail older person can go unseen. The factors contributing to frailty in older people, such as reduced mobility, shortness of breath, frequent falls and frequent hospital admissions have a huge impact on individuals, yet the resulting suffering often goes unspoken, or unrecognised outside the medical domain.

I have created a set of 15 sculptures which represent different situations that an older person might find themselves in as a result of illness, falls, pain, loneliness, spousal illness or mental health problems. The material substrate for each sculpture is a teacup: the teacup became a vehicle for communicating a conceptual or visual representation of a life situation or illness related to frailty. The selection of the final 15 teacup sculptures followed extensive artistic experimentation with various ways of trying to communicate concepts and representations of frailty issues. I found that although any direct figurative representation of an actual person is absent from a teacup, the sculptural adaptations I made to the teacup, for example breaking and mending, submerging in liquid soap or obscuring with a block of plaster of Paris, allowed me to illustrate more conceptually the sometimes devastating symptoms and situations a person might have to experience. Somehow, the absence of figurative representation of a person didn’t matter – the teacup takes on its own personality and without the harnesses of figurative representation, the viewer can imagine their own version of the individual in question, for example ‘David’ (see linked website), who is admitted to hospital following a fall and, removed from his own home, and potentially deemed not ‘safe’ to be at home on his own anymore, is asked by medical and physiotherapy staff what his thoughts are about going to a care home. The ‘David’ teacup was broken, and mended by wrapping string and stuffing round and round. It illustrates the fine boundary between comfort and constriction of liberty: the cup looks both comfortable and constricted, and the viewer is left wondering what sort of person David is, and where he might chose to live after being in hospital.


The teacup as an object carries its own narrative too, which I wanted to harness: what does it mean if it is cracked, or cannot carry liquid anymore? As a metaphor for ageing, I found the teacup provided its own rich visual language which effectively complemented the sculptural additions, breaks or subtractions.


The entire project was exhibited in the Cambridge School of Art MA show in September 2015. All 15 teacups can be seen on

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