During my PhD I had one clear goal – to write historical novels when I was done studying. In my last year of study I started lecturing in Ancient History, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but writing novels was always the final end-game in my mind.
An unplanned pregnancy during this time admittedly created a slight inconvenience, but I was still determined to finish the PhD by the end of 2009. I retained that determination until the 1st of September … the day my mum suddenly died. In the immediate aftermath of her death I obviously postponed my study, unsure whether I would ever return to it. As I went through the initial grieving process – the darkest time in my life – I began to journal. I poured out the horrors in my heart and mind, splashing them onto the pages with no caution or reservation.
Then something quite unexpected happened. After we moved down south, I realised that my passion for writing historical novels had completely vanished. History just didn’t seem relevant to me anymore; its importance had disappeared along with my mother. I became compelled to turn my journal entries into a memoir. My first book, ‘Loving Ellie’, was the result; a poignant, raw, provocative narrative of my journey through the loss of my mother, and my transition into motherhood.
Once the memoir was finished, I experienced a strange sense of fulfillment and simultaneous disappointment. What now? I had the taste for writing running in my blood. I wanted to write another book. But this time a work of pure fiction, where I could explore and unravel characters with real identities and hidden pasts – characters that would reach people on an intimate and confronting level. Once I had made that decision it was as though the story unfolded before me, without any effort at all. And this is the way all my writing has come about since then. I describe it as a sort of friendly form of schizophrenia – where the characters just appear, in movie like scenes in my mind, and all I have to do is translate what I see into words. I have written two other books in this way, ‘Chase Hope’ and ‘The White Room’, both of which are seeking publication.
I was in the very process of attempting to acquire a publisher when another rather unexpected thing happened. Except this time it saw my creativity turn back to painting. I should firstly explain what I mean by ‘back to’: I went to a special art high-school and received intensive art training for the five years I was there. But, despite my talent, I decided that social sciences, and history in particular, was what I wanted to study at university. As such art was left untouched for a number of years. Occasionally I would get that creative urge, and paint something as a gift for someone close to me.
It was one of these very gifts that led to the next unexpected chapter. A few years ago I decided to create a painting for my cousin Lara (who is like a sister to me) for her 30th birthday. The piece, entitled ‘Trolley Ride with Chicken’, was an abstract depiction of our journey together from childhood to adulthood, which would naturally only make sense to the two of us.
‘Trolley Ride with Chicken’
I proudly presented it to her at her 30th birthday party, where I just so happened to be dressed as a rather convincing Puss in Boots, due to the book character theme. She was overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation, and the painting became a hit talking point of that evening.
One of her friends was so taken with the painting that he asked me if I would consider doing a commissioned piece for him. That was something I had never considered before, but as he spoke about exactly what he wanted, I became more and more intrigued by the idea. He wanted me to do a painting as a gift from him to his mother, one that depicted her life and the things most important to her. I eagerly agreed. It was a massive project that took months to design and then create. Over those months Shaun and I discussed the details of his mother’s life in hundreds of phone calls and emails, as I tried to translate his narrative into images. At one point I had sketches, madly scrawled notes, and multiple photos of his family pinned up on a giant board, which was very helpful indeed, but also ever so CSI serial killer like. Eventually, once I felt I had enough of a feel for his mother, I put together a design that encapsulated her journey through life. The most difficult and rewarding aspect was the inclusion of her older son, who had died tragically when he was a young man. It took me months to paint the aspects of this stranger’s life.
Once the piece was finally finished, and Shaun was extremely satisfied, I made the journey out to this woman’s house to deliver it. It felt very strange – to be taking an offering such as this to a complete stranger that I felt I knew intimately, but who had no knowledge of me or what she was about to receive. I offered it to her as a gift from her son, and stood back to nervously await her reaction.
She was shocked and uncomprehending at first. But then she recognised her son who had died, and her eyes instantly misted up. This recognition turned to awe and joy, and then shifted to peace and gratitude as she took in all the elements of her life upon the canvas. For that half an hour of time I witnessed the most beautiful array of emotions wash through this woman. She held me for a long time after she had soaked in the many elements of her life embedded in the piece. It was as if the painting had created an instant bond between us.
‘The Life of Anne’
The offering of it to her was one of the most profound moments of my life. I drove away from the experience thinking, ‘Yesssss! THIS is what I want to do – create art that touches people on the deepest and most intimate of levels’.
And that is how I came to do what I do now – a style of art I have coined Soul Portraits. They are based entirely on the wants and needs of the individual client. They require a depth of understanding into the personality and life of the person I am trying to capture. And in this sense, they also fulfil the need in me to delve further into people, as far as they will let me go. I feel honoured to do this work, which is still in its very early days. I love listening to the people that ask me to do such work for them. They open up to me, and I then feel as though its my duty to deliver something of precious importance to them, and them alone.
To achieve this I need to do three things. Firstly I need to look into the person commissioning the work, and ask questions such as, What do you want to feel when you look at the piece? What emotions do you want driving the piece? Why do you want it? This is usually different to looking at the subject itself, as I have found that people who ask me to do these pieces usually want an image of someone else, either for themselves or to gift to another person. If this is the case, then it is my job to probe into the depths of the subject. And thirdly and finally, to project those depths into a tangible image, keeping in mind the way the client wants the piece to feel.
Doing pieces of this nature is the most rewarding work I have ever done, and one of the most potent ways I am finding purpose in my life. There is something so intrisically beautiful about looking into someone, and creating an artwork that will only make sense to them, and the people who know them most intimately. I still don’t know where it will lead, but I do know that no matter what direction my life takes, I will never say no to the person who wants me to paint the innermost depths of a human being.