My recovery journey with art started when I was about a year sober. I was living in Berlin, looking after kids and cleaning houses (both of which I loved by the way!) but needed another income stream to support myself financially. I’d been wracking my brain for weeks/months but was coming up blank. One night, seemingly out of nowhere, the idea of face painting popped into my head. It was a sit-bolt-up-right-in-the-
Me in Berlin, circa 2010.
Whilst face painting is often just associated with children’s birthday entertainment, it became so much more for me. It was an intricate art form, a way to develop my creativity and improve my painting skills, and a way to make my world even more colourful. I practised regularly on my friends’ faces and on my own arms, determined to improve and excel in the field. I’ll always remember a dear friend saying to me how beautiful it was that I ‘used to cut my arms, and now I paint flowers on my arms’. She was able to see what I couldn’t – the immeasurable catharsis of replacing my painfully destructive habit with the gentle repetition of tender brush strokes on my skin – now creating beauty, instead of destroying it.
Self-painted poppies on my arm & image mirrored.
Not only was the act of painting my arms a deeply healing meditative practice, it also taught me about practise and perseverance (values I had no real experience of). I’d always believed that if I wasn’t good at something immediately, there was no point in even trying. My sole focus was on instant gratification and so the very notion of practise left me recoiling in horror. I was impatient to the core. Learning the art of face and body painting therefore challenged me in many different ways. I learned that practise does indeed lead to improvement, I learned the value of setting personal goals and achieving them, and I started to learn about the power of patience and self-compassion. This seemingly frivolous career choice was teaching me so much more than I had ever anticipated.
Over time however, the years of weekends filled with children’s birthday parties began to take its toll. The snotty noses, the relentless noise, the incessant elbows on my table and sticky fingers in my paints, the absence of thank yous and the increasing disbelief that I was a ‘real’ fairy (!) eventually sucked all the enjoyment out the job for me. Plus four years of Frozen designs. I frequently joked about loving kids a lot less now than I did when I started face painting but I’d learned that persistence yielded results, so I persisted. It didn’t occur to me that hating something I’d once loved so dearly could actually signify my personal growth, and outgrowing jobs was a ‘normal’ and healthy response to consistently working on my personal development.
Out of the darkness of my addiction I had created a job and a persona of sheer, unadulterated joy – all fantasy, colour and rapture – and in the vulnerability and rawness of early recovery it had become a true expression of the light I was discovering. I received consistent adoration and applause (at a time I probably needed it the most) and believed I’d found my calling. I adored being a fairy and the kids adored the fairy, but over time I grew less and less enamoured with dressing up, less and less fulfilled with what I was doing, and constantly wrestled with the futility of it all (I often struggle with the quagmire of nihilism). How could something that had brought me so much delight and joy now be such a source of misery? Why couldn’t I just love something forever? Accepting that this was all just part of my growth was therefore a bittersweet relief and I admitted to myself that I was ready for change.
In my eternal yet clearly unattainable quest to counteract the natural impermanence of life (and face painting) I progressed into painting canvasses, determined to create art that didn’t wash off. I had retained my teenage ability to produce almost identical copies of any given cartoon character, so I duplicated many a minion, countless Elsas, and various other Disney figures. I quickly grew tired of this uninspiring work (not to mention it is obvious copyright infringement!) but I felt stuck. I knew I wanted to paint but I didn’t know what to paint. Fear and self-doubt crippled me, the whispers of ‘you’re not good enough’ often crescendoing into a deafening white noise which I allowed to defeat me.
It wasn’t until I picked up my dusty copy of The Artist’s Way, gifted to me several years previously by one of my mentors, that something began to shift. I started to challenge my unhelpful, often vicious inner critic and the stories I was telling myself and within a few weeks of ‘going deep’ I produced my very first original painting – The Mushroom Fairy.
I had an image in my head of what I wanted to create but hadn’t given much thought to what it meant. It was other people’s comments and perceptions that encouraged me to contemplate its meaning and on reflection I believe it was my attempt to convey that beauty and pain can coexist. There is magic in recovery but also anguish, happiness but also despair, peace but also conflict. To be human is to encompass the light and the dark – you can’t have one without the other – and my painting mirrored this duality without me even realising it! She still sits on my mantelpiece to this day, as a reminder that self-doubt is really just an illusion and that anything is possible.
Whilst lots of fairies and owls and lovebirds kept me busy for a while I again grew restless and began to seek further inspiration. It was through devouring instagram for creative ideas that I discovered alcohol inks and it was indeed love at first sight. I was utterly captivated by the vibrancy of the colours and the fluidity of the compositions and spent weeks researching the inks, substrates and sealants before purchasing my first batch. These then sat in a drawer for months, as my trusty old friends fear and procrastination showed up the party (again)!
Throughout my life I have allowed fear to keep me constrained in a state of paralysis – afraid I won’t be good enough, afraid I won’t be perfect, afraid of criticism. I have surrendered my power to fear itself and instead of moving through it, I’ve floundered in indecision, inaction and pain. In recovery I have learned to embrace my power and move forward through fear, but it often takes me an excruciating amount of time to do so. Eventually I took the plunge and unboxed my inks, started to play and I loved it. I’d always been drawn to abstract art (as a kid I absolutely adored Kandinsky) but I’d never had the courage to create any. Now I was and it felt like home. I’d found my ‘thing’.
Creating with the inks (before I owned a mask & airbrush machine!)
Life for me though is anything but a fairytale. A part of me still longs for perfection, that happy ending with no problems, no issues, no faults – a plateau of euphoria with no peaks or troughs. But this is not my experience and deep down I understand the necessity of the yin and the yang. My love affair with alcohol inks has been tumultuous and for that I am actually grateful. The inks are a magnificent and surprising teacher and through working with them I have learned, and continue to learn, a lot about myself. Sharing this enchanting medium with others is my next step and whilst this still fills me with fear, I am also overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude at the prospect of doing so.
Me in my studio, 2019