Experience: I can only paint in my sleep | Art and design

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Experience: I can only paint in my sleep | Art and design

When I was in school, I hated art. Growing up in North Wales, I couldn’t scrape higher than an E in my final exams. I wasn’t too bothered; I thought I wasn’t going to pursue this as a career.

By the time I was about four, I started sleepwalking. in the evening, I used to go under the stairs and scribble on the wall. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, at the age of seven, about to go out. The doctor was adamant that there was nothing to worry about, and advised my parents to “let him get on with it”.

When I was 15, I was still getting up in the middle of the night to make art – even if I stayed over at a friend’s house. By this point I was no longer just doodling. I sketched anything from portraits of Marilyn Monroe to abstract zeros and crosses, and fairies.

I showed some to my art teachers. They said, “Why can’t you do this in class?” It was something I struggled to understand myself. I tried so hard to draw when I was awake, practiced and used the same tools. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t replicate the drawings.

When I left school I became a nurse and carer in hospices, mainly helping people with brain injuries. I also met my partner. We’ve been together for 23 years, and he’s been and still is incredibly supportive of my art and sleepwalking habits – he often films me while I’m working. Watching videos of my painting is very strange because I have no memory of it. I often wake up feeling like I did something in my sleep, but I can never quite remember what. I paint with both hands, but awake I’m only right-handed.

I will leave my art supplies in my drawers and when I sleep I will know where to go. At a friend’s place, I drew on a plasterboard with chicken bones and coal left over from a barbecue we had in the garden. I will use any tools I can find, sometimes knives and forks. That’s the only thing that worries my partner – that I will accidentally hurt myself. But it hasn’t happened yet.

I went to several sleep clinics to try to figure out what was going on. They saw the videos and observed me while I was sleeping. I was wired, had my heart rate monitored overnight, and was kept awake for 36 hours for experiments, but nothing out of the ordinary was found health-wise. However, alcohol or sleep deprivation brings more sleepwalking, so I’m wary of that.

I learned to embrace my unusual talent and set up my first art exhibition in 2007 at my local library to raise money for cancer research. I bought £1 frames, cut out my artwork and taped it to the walls. Within a week I had 160 calls from different media and organizations wanting to hear about my art. I was over the moon. I then decided to leave my very fulfilling job in nursing and become a full-time artist.

People sometimes assume that I will always paint a fully developed piece of art at night. In fact, my success ratio is more like one in 50. I’ve ruined things in my sleep before. Sometimes I’ll do random squiggles or lines, only to go back three months later and finish them. Now I actually sell my work as a career, there can be pressure to produce more.

Sometimes I’ll go months without drawing or painting, and every now and then I’ll do something I’m proud of. I had to learn to go with the flow, which helps make me relaxed enough to produce more work. I usually do about 20 pieces a year. Kim Kardashian had two of my Marilyn Monroes in her Met Gala dressing room this year.

Some people have tried to link my abilities to childhood trauma, which doesn’t occur to me personally. Others questioned whether I was sincere. It doesn’t worry me because I don’t feel like I have anything to prove and really enjoy what I do. I do feel a little guilty that there are people who study art all their lives and then I come and do it in my sleep. I am lucky that my subconscious gave me a career that makes me truly happy. My advice to my younger self? Do your art exam in your sleep.

As told to Elizabeth McCafferty

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