In 4 months time, it will be 2 years since I made the decision to split my energy between being an artist and working in healthcare & medicine. I wrote a blog post, around about 2 years now about how I wasn’t going to change. I was still – and foremost – an artist, forever and always. But even though I wrote the blog post, I didn’t tell many people openly about my split in career path. I don’t mention it on my Facebook as job or schooling. I barely make note of it on my twitter bio. It’s not mentioned on my website. I still meet friends now who don’t know that I’m studying radiation-oncology.
I didn’t tell many people because I worried about how I could explain. I worried about it all the time.
I was worried I would’t get any more freelance opportunities. I was worried that people would judge me, that I’d constantly have to justify that yes i do make my living from art, and that this adventure into healthcare wasn’t just for a job. I already had a job. I make art. I draw exciting plans, conferences, discussions. I help to bring information to all audiences. I design books and publications and websites. I code apps. I teach. I do a bit of this, and a bit of that. I do residencies and commissions and work with communities. I’m a Smizz of all trades, master of none.
Since then, I have become more open about what I do and how i am doing. But the story is more complicated.
I worked harder at being an artist and trying to make sure I do what I love more than anything else in my whole life. I traded in romantic relationships, blew off my family, got myself in credit-card debt, worked in bookies, bookstores, toyshops, scraped chicken fat off trays in ASDA and some-more, all to study art. I worked many unpaid jobs, around the world, at hopes of learning more and getting known. I stayed up all night, worked all day. I tried to master my craft in all of its forms. Some I wasn’t very good at (writing, sculpture), others better (drawing, photography, critiquing).
But it never felt like work. And every minute was so fun. And to my joy, it started to pay off! Ever… so…. slowly.
I am so endlessly grateful. Those years gifted me experiences, skills, lessons, and friendships. I would not be me without them.
One day, whilst doing a residency at SITE Gallery, Sheffield, I had bone ache. It never went away. I felt so unusually tired in the weirdest way that I couldn’t put my finger on it. I started having uncontrollable chronic nosebleeds, drenching night sweats, and a bunch of other things a little too gnarly to write here. I was so confused, I’d not been to the doctor in about 16 years before this.
I lived with this unknowing for months feeling like proper shit (just a virus *shrug*) before heading back to the USA for my usual summer job of doing art-work-shops in Lakes of New Hampshire & city of Boston.
But then just one surreal USA doctor appointment with a haemotologist-oncologist changed everything. But not straight away.
That night I drank a lot of alcohol, and laid in the middle of the ball field – alone – and i looked at the stars above me. You can see the Milky-way in sky in the mountains away from civilisation. And I thought about all the plans I had that I might not get to do; all the things I might not get to see, all the things I had put off – all the things i had stupidly thought was important, but in this new light seemed almost meaningless.
I had no back up plans in my life. In denial, I decided not to go home. I decided to gamble with the unknown, with the odds, and re-think what being ill had already taught me. I went on a massive road-trip. I just knew for certain that I didn’t want to waste any more time. It’s a lesson that keeps being taught to me.
Back in the UK, time passed, slowly and fast. I worked part-time in a bookstore, I couldn’t manage much more than that. I lost money. I lost a sense of who I was. I’d lie in bed, fatigued and literally stare at the ceiling not being able to think. I couldn’t reply emails. I couldn’t even watch iPlayer. I felt that poorly. I felt sorry for myself. I cried at how unable I was to shake what was happening to me. How misunderstood I was. How I wasn’t the artist, not even the person, I wanted to be anymore.
Time does heal though. Although sometimes I wish time would heal quicker than it does. With a combination of a bunch of things, medicine, talking, help & unrelentless support from friends, rest, eating well, determination – I slowly learnt how to manage my new broken body.
I struggled to get back to my normal life, but it no longer fit in the way it once had. I’d see self-absorbed, terrible art getting commissioned and shown and it would make me angry. And made me feel like I had lost interest, even though I knew I hadn’t. There were bigger issues at hand, I’d think. My whole world-view had shifted. I still cared deeply and emotionally about art, but a big part of it was rendered as almost meaningless to me because its ethical & passionate foundations were so weak.
I realized I couldn’t have my old life back, but I wasn’t sure that I want it anymore anyways. Still hacking through the medical system, I realised that the change and challenge I craved was there- straight in front of me: in healthcare. It was a difference I could make, that I so badly wanted as a patient, that art had made so difficult for me to grapple with – for various reasons.
It felt right to try and pursue it. I applied and got in!
It is easier than ever before to go to university, for most people in the UK (although this is up for debate). But many forget that it’s a rare privilege to find something you care about so deeply about and be able to make it your life. i’m incredibly lucky that I’ve found 2 things that do this for me: Art & Healthcare.
That was nearly 2 years ago. What’s happening now and since then?
Well, it turns out – unlike Art – a radiation-oncology course feels more like work – but it feels totally worth it. It’s hard in ways art was never hard (The workload is immense & the learning curve is steep). But then, art is hard in other ways.
I balance my art-life (I get more art commissions/job-offers and opportunities now than I ever have!) with the study/clinical life (granted not very well at times) and I’m still a patient in the middle of it. It’s a unique perspective that i believe makes me more useful and compassionate to my patients. It also helps me remember, on those tough days – why I decided to take this path.
I see that there’s spaces for people like us in healthcare, that need to be carved out – for the creative, empathetic, boat-rockers. I’m making an app at the moment, and it’s really fun and challenging.
Seeing life and death on the edges of everyday really helps you to realise that we’re lucky in countless ways, that we shouldn’t make excuses, that we should tell one another we love each other. And I constantly feel privileged that patients share their life and their trust with us. It’s a feeling that can never be compared.
Humans are by default hopeful and optimistic creatures. We usually think about the future as though it will occur for us with absolute certainty, and that makes it hard to imagine death as a motivation for living. For a long time, when I was younger, I waited to discover my purpose. It’s only very recently that I realized purpose is something you are supposed to create for yourself.
I don’t know yet what’s next for me, but after some new medication, I’ve felt the closest to my old-unbroken-self than I have in such a long time. It’s nice to have a reminder what that used to feel like, and I’ve been thinking a lot.
I’ve been thinking about how if you’re lucky enough to be doing work you love, it’s your responsibility to make sure it stays true to your integrity, to your vision, or makes you feel or others good.
I’m currently in a mass of exam revision, and have just finished 2 assignments amounting up to 15,000 words in total together (including appendix/refs/ect). Over the past few months I’ve been working visiting places on my bucket list, doing things I normally wouldn’t do, trying to keep myself open. I can’t promise I won’t change like I did in my blog-post 2 years ago. But I rest easier knowing it won’t stay the same, and art will always be there for me.
So, yeah friends, I know I’ve been quiet. And I’ve barely worked on a gallery show for many, many months. But my work is still here, it’s getting out there. I no longer feel the need to fully self advertise & endorse myself like I used to when I was younger. But I’m here – being an artist is hard, and you have to struggle every day to carry on being an artist. But I love it.
To paraphrase Steve Jobs: remembering that you are going to die is the best way you can avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You really have nothing to lose. So keep on chasing your dreams and passions friends. We can do this.