When I was in school I hated art. Growing up in North Wales, I couldn’t get higher than an E in my final exams. I wasn’t too worried; I thought I wouldn’t pursue it as a career.
When I was about four I started sleepwalking. Overnight, I would go under the stairs and scribble on the wall. I have a clear memory of sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, aged seven, to be examined. The doctor was adamant that there was nothing to worry about and advised my parents to “let him deal with it”.
When I was 15, I was still getting up to make art in the middle of the night – even if I was staying at a friend’s house. By this point, I wasn’t just scribbling anymore. I sketched everything from portraits of Marilyn Monroe to abstract zero crosses and fairies.
I showed some to my art teachers. They said, “Why can’t you do this in class?” That was something I struggled to understand. I tried so hard to paint when I was awake, practicing and using the same tools. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t reproduce the drawings.
After leaving school I became a nurse and hospice carer, mainly helping people with brain injuries. I also met my partner. We’ve been together for 23 years and he was and still is incredibly supportive of my art and my sleepwalking habits – often photographing me while I’m working. Watching videos of me drawing is very strange as I have no memory of it. I often wake up feeling like I did something in my dream, but I can never remember exactly what. I draw with both hands, but only my right hand is awake.
I will leave my items in the drawers and when I fall asleep I will know where to go. At a friend’s house, I was painting on plasterboard with chicken bones and charcoal left over from a barbecue we had in the garden. I will use whatever tools I can find, sometimes knives and forks. That’s the only thing that worries my partner – lest he accidentally injure himself. But so far it hasn’t happened.
I went to various sleep clinics to try to get to the bottom of what was going on. They have watched the videos and watched me sleep. I was wired, had my heart rate monitored overnight, and was kept awake for 36 hours for experiments, but nothing abnormal was found health-wise. However, alcohol or sleep deprivation increases sleepiness, so I’m careful with that.
I learned to embrace my unusual talent and organized my first art exhibition in 2007 at the local library to raise money for cancer research. I bought frames for £1, cut out my artwork and taped it to the walls. Within a week, I received 160 calls from various media and organizations wanting to hear about my art. I was over the moon. I then decided to quit my very fulfilling job as a nurse and become a full-time artist.
People sometimes assume that I will always paint a fully developed piece of art at night. In truth, my success ratio is more like one in 50. I’ve messed things up in my sleep before. Sometimes I’ll make random curves or lines, only to come back three months later and finish them. Now I’m actually selling my work as a career, there can be pressure to produce more.
Sometimes months go by without drawing or painting anything, and every once in a while I do something I’m proud of. I had to learn to go with the flow, which helps me relax enough to produce more work. I usually make about 20 pieces a year. Kim Kardashian had two of my Marilyn Monroes in her dressing room at the Met Gala this year.
Some people have tried to link my abilities to a childhood trauma that doesn’t affect me personally. Others question whether I am genuine. Neither of these bothers me as I don’t feel like I have anything to prove and I really enjoy what I do. I feel a little guilty that there are people who spend their whole lives studying art and then I come and do it in my sleep. I am lucky that my subconscious has given me a career that makes me truly happy. My advice to my younger self? Take your art exam in your sleep.
As told to Elizabeth McCafferty
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