A classic tale; I gave up art after school to pursue something more “academic”, thus it took a health crisis for me to pick up a paintbrush again, which was in 2006, by which time I was in my mid 30s and my health in total disarray. Teaching myself to paint turned out to be the most powerfully healing thing I could have done and altered the direction of my life from that point.
Those first oil paints (an unused gift) literally fell out of a messy cupboard one day when I was feeling almost hopeless about life, piquing my curiosity at just the right time as something made me open the tubes and have a go. Painting became like a daily meditation and really helped me on my healing path, plus it opened doors of possibility that I could never have foreseen. Within two years, I had been invited to exhibit as a regular artist at a prestigious gallery not far from my home and, from that timely breakthrough, all kinds of opportunities for exposure began to come together.
My paintings have since been exhibited in numerous galleries in the UK and beyond, with originals held in private collections across three continents and my prints sold, as well as images licensed, worldwide. Diversification into digital art helped my work to translate into fabric design and various other applications. I now work, predominantly, in acrylic on canvas and also in watercolour and pencil.
Subjects are equally diverse though the core theme is “light” or those moments when a rarified quality of light elevates a particular subject and suggests a quality of peace, unity or otherworldliness. Such moments can be as transformative as they are fleeting and my objective is to capture those and convey them to my audience in the hope that my work will offer as much joy and appreciation as I experience when I am painting.
That was the summary; read on (if you want to) for the longer bio…
Out of the cupboard
It was as though the oil paints found me as they fell out of the back of a cupboard one day during a period of my life defined by complete overwhelm and the cascading health issues that are known as fibromyalgia. For years, I’d followed a winding path with no particular career objective: I obtained an English degree (sharing a house with a bunch of artists!), which was followed by various different roles including a long stint in an art gallery, five years in exhibition project management, many years of running a small business from home, then a stressful (completely unsuitable) role in a firm of solicitors during the “divorce years” to keep the wolf from the door. I was feeling ever-more jaded and overwhelmed by life, reaching a point where my health burned out utterly and “crashed”. Suddenly, I was forced to stop everything to focus on my recovery.
The day when the oil paints, as yet never unwrapped from their box, tumbled out of the cupboard felt like a metaphor for my life to date. All my creative aspirations had been pushed to the back of the terrible mess that my life had become and I didn’t know how to get back on top of things.
Yet something told me to unscrew the lids on those tubes of colour and make the first tentative marks on a blank white surface – that was in the Spring of 2006, when I was still working full time but my health was falling apart. From that point, I discovered that painting in oils came naturally and that these paints smelt strangely familiar, behaved predictably and seemed like old friends. This familiarity was a clue that, in a sense, I had “arrived home” and my few snatched moments of painting at the weekends felt like they were the most coherent and joyful hours in my otherwise highly stressful life.
Six months later, after my bewildering health circumstances had forced me to give up office work, I found myself painting as often as I could. My first impulse was to assume I needed to “acquire” a technique and so, as soon as I was able to manage it (almost a year later) I enrolled on a day’s mentorship with internationally renowned artist Caroline Hulse FRSA with a view to going on to one of her longer courses. At the end of that day, Caroline told me I was a “complete natural” and should just go off and continue experiment, so I did (as well as attending weekly life study classes to hone my drawing skills, which I continued for three years).
A chance conversation led to a very smart gallery (one that I would have naturally assumed was well out of my league!) inviting me to exhibit a collection of my work in their next exhibition, a demand for my work materialised and I never looked back. For a time, I had an agent and exhibited in London as well as in local galleries and art trails, then I was approached by Bridgeman, who have now represented my art commercially for almost a decade. Since then, I have exhibited in numerous galleries but now concentrate on internet exposure and word of mouth when it comes to sharing my original work.
Alongside my eventful journey as a self-taught artist, I have been on a parallel one – towards health or “wholeness”, as a strove to recover from Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and then to cope with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and POTs (this has been a 16 year journey, continuing). At the same time as pursuing better health, I also started to spend much more time walking in nature, noticing how being outside, where my preoccupation became photographing moments of intense light, encouraged better health than when I languished at home, however much I struggled to walk at certain times. I became increasingly drawn to bringing these experiences home with me and expressing them on canvas, which prolonged the feeling of being expanded far beyond how my body was actually feeling. At times when I painted, I was able to suspend my awareness of pain and lose myself in a sort of meditation that focused my attention on healing.
As I travelled further along this road, sampling various healing modalities and learning how to expand my own awareness in order to assist my own recovery, I became increasingly conscious that energy is absolutely everything. That is, thoughts and intentions are energy, objects are (slower moving) energy, we all exist as part of an energetic universe in which all things are intricately connected by energy; something my journey towards health and wholeness demonstrated to me, over and over again, in so many countless ways. When we “see” something, there is so much more going on that what our eyes take in at surface level and, when an artist paints their intention, they energetically connect with the viewer as well as connecting that viewer with an aspect of whatever it is that inspired them to create the piece of art. In essence, the “healing” moment gets shared, from one person to another!
I discovered that, when the inspiration came in the form of a light-infused subject or a moment of intense radiance where time seems to stand still in the glow of its own serenity, those experiences could be felt through the artwork and could be transformative or even healing. Other people commented on this and my work was commissioned to hang in the treatment room of various clinics and even a dentist practice, all because of how people began to appreciate how calm and at peace they felt when looking at it. Many times, those drawn to invest in my work have commented that they find it “powerful”, “soothing”, “transformational” and “other-dimensional”, like stepping into a “portal” of calm and healing potential (these words taken from actual reviews I have received).
In my view, certain subjects I favour hold a particular “vibration” or a frequency that can be felt by others and which can uplift them or even activate their own positive experience; as though they were there at the very moment of inspiration. This is conveyed through a visual language that relies on balance, beauty and and a combination of colours; visual cues that we all know how to read because they are already ‘out there’ in nature, instinctively read by all us, from the moment we are born; cues that are capable of lifting our souls whenever we tune into them…yet, in our busy lives, we often forget to spend enough time being in such a receptive relationship with the natural world (I used to be one of those people). We dash around and forget to take pause, but art can encourage us to take that pause, to be more present with beauty and stillness and to become more aware of our surroundings.
As such, I believe that the visual arts are able to tap into the “unseen” realms of experience, using what is visible as a prompt to the eyes; a reminder that activates a person’s innate ability to heal. If my own experiences are to be believed then, at the very core of this shared universal “language” of wellbeing and healing is the full spectrum radiance of brilliant, transformative, light; the most central preoccupation of my art. I love to capture subjects that are infused with the special quality of light that I most associate with wholeness and healing.
Fragmented into wholeness – a deeper diver into my inspiration
If my crashing health had felt like an experience of fragmentation, of profound disintegration, then moments of light intensity seemed to serve as a reminder of the very return to “wholeness” that I sought. Even before I noticed the theme, my work started to look like an unconscious exploration of this motif of a journey back towards unity, typically conveyed as moments of supreme intensity and radiance (my earliest subjects back in 2006 were mist, fog and rather moody landscapes but, in parallel with my healing process, I moved on to where I was suddenly painting explosive sunsets and then moments of gentle radiance “being let in” through windows…). It began to occur to me, through my painting meditation, that sunsets represented to me that singular moment when all the diverse colour and contrast, the hard lines and rigid structures of physicality, begin to soften and fragment, drawing everything back together into the mixing pot that is the full-spectrum white light that is at the very source of everything. In those fleeting moments of intensity, it is as though the oneness, or “one source”, that underlies everything in creation is made overtly – if temporarily – visible to the eye and I wanted to capture the essence of that.
This is something that I found I loved to play with, not least through the theme of light streaming in through the ‘hard edged, man-made boundaries’ that are window frames, dissolving those structures away in the dazzle of light until the separation between inside and out is no longer so apparent (something which also seemed to be taking place inside of me as I began to feel better). It taught me something else that proved to be so important to my own recovery; that, in order to return to this state of completeness, wholeness, unity and light, it had been entirely necessary to, at first, soften and fragment or break apart until I felt scattered in pieces…just as I had watched happen in nature, time and time again. In other words, my own health “crash” had been the gift that had broken me down in order to help me reformat myself in an altogether more cohesive and inclusive way, leading to a new kind of wholeness which is so much more than just improved “health” as, in so many ways, I now feel like a transformed, more joyful, appreciative and aware person because of my experiences.
I recently discovered the Theory of Positive Disintegration and realised that, not only had I been experiencing this first hand (as my health, and old life, “fell apart”…only to come back better and more cohesive than ever before) but I had also been attempting to paint it!
Beyond the canvas
My journey from a place of “crashed” health towards a state of genuine wellbeing and much increased joy of life fuelled such enthusiasm to share my journey with others. My ongoing blog Living Whole was born in 2015 to specialise in the topic of healing that is so close to my heart and to document my journey through the trials and tribulations, the discoveries and the breakthroughs, of living with chronic health challenges.
Meanwhile, my art has been licensed by Bridgeman for a number of years, gaining exposure across a worldwide audience, on prints and products, in books, adverts and magazines such as Vogue, used by the BBC and in documentaries…the list goes on.
Over the years, the use of digital editing to explore subjects ripe for painting mophed into a deep love of digital processes in their own right. I found that I could work “like a painter” using these techniques, only so much more quickly though still in multiple layers, realising results that were somewhat elusive or prohibitively time consuming when I used only paint. This increased my range of work and took some of it into the realms of fabric design and interiors.
Exhibitions and other art-related events are generally announced in the blog on this page and on social media. However, I do heartily encourage anyone who trips upon my work via this website to contact me here if purchasing originals is of interest. I now prefer to sell originals and prints direct (my prints via my Etsy shop, as linked from the front page of this website), which keeps my work more widely accessible and affordable.
Helen White, 2022.