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Take Five with Liz Atkin

Liz Atkin is an internationally acclaimed visual artist and advocate based in London. Compulsive Skin Picking dominated her life for more than 20 years, but art has become her greatest tool for recovery. Liz reimagines the body-focused repetitive behaviour of skin picking into photographic artworks, charcoal drawings and performances. Her work has been exhibited in the UK, Australia, Singapore, USA and Japan. She has given public talks for TEDx, Wellcome Collection and at a range of conferences and health events around the world.

As a freelance creative practitioner Liz works in therapeutic settings, schools, galleries, prisons, hospitals and arts venues, teaching visual art, set design, movement and drama to all ages from early years to adults. She regularly teaches for Arts Depot, Half Moon Young People's Theatre, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Extant.

Liz was on an advocacy trip in Singapore for 2 weeks, creating free #CompulsiveCharcoal drawings, and sharing her story in talks at Universities and Hospitals. A film about her trip by Channel News Asia was viewed 150,000 in the first 24 hours. She has just been featured in The Huffington Post. And if you are travelling on the underground in London, you may be lucky enough to be sat next to her and get your own free drawing!

In your professional life, what is the single best thing about what you do?

Because of the transformative experiences I have had with art, it is now a fully connected part of my life. I teach art and drama in hospitals, hospices, prisons, universities and schools, approaching creativity as a hugely important tool to help others. Art gets in there without language and provides a channel to express some of this stuff. It can be very hard to put into words what it feels like to live with Skin Picking. But I can perhaps find a way to express this through a photograph, and that becomes very cathartic. Art is a powerful tool for us to also focus our minds — I find it to be extremely mindful, soothing, evocative and emotional, all in the same moment! That's a terrific thing, and it has become something I am passionate about offering to others. Teaching has become a very important part of my life now.

I'm really proud and grateful to be an advocate for mental health and skin picking, raising awareness for people with mental or physical disabilities to be able to feel welcomed in the art community. Be it through using art as a cathartic healing tool, to being able to embrace artists of such backgrounds. Sort of to build an equal opportunity playing field for everyone. Art is also not simply for those in that scene but is something which I believe is intrinsic in all of us. The ability for art to provoke thought and emotion in everyone can be used as a great tool to reach out to people out there who can use it as a form of therapy. As an artist who is exploring mental health issues but also finding creative approaches to looking after ourselves, it feels like I'm riding a good wave here, in terms of putting my art to good use. I think the health connection in my artwork and practice has given me a lot of empathy to want to work with others who might be experiencing difficulties in their lives.

Freelance life gives me such opportunities, no single day is the same when teaching and working with others. I teach very young children from 18 months to 3 years old, I run my own art classes for 4 - 12 years, teenagers and adults of all ages. I get to design and make, and play - these energies are wonderful and vibrant.

Do you have a creative hero / heroine and if so, why?

I admire the work of artists who do not shy away from the complexities we live with as human beings, like Louise Bourgeois for her unflinching examination of her life, artists who have incredible chameleon qualities like Picasso, David Bowie. I love the paintings of Francis Bacon for their visceral drama in life and death, Grayson Perry for his advocacy for mental health and art, is an advocate and feminist, and a brilliant artist and maker.

What piece of advice do you wish you had been given at the beginning of your career?

I didn’t train as an artist, I followed my intuitive and singular fascinations.... and I guess the advice I wish I’d had at the start was to really listen to my gut! I wish I’d understood earlier how powerful and remarkable art was for my soul... it took a decade to take a leap of faith towards my creative life, because I was too scared to embrace it fully. For a long time, art was on the side, I thought of it more like my ‘hobby’ I guess, and I didn’t dream I could make a living from it. But once I got ill and had to leave a senior arts management job, it became very clear, that there was no time like the present to listen to my creativity. In the end, art was the single greatest tool to get me better. I also stopped worrying about what might happen, instead embracing the uncertainty and recognising the skills as a manager could be redirected into problem solving as an artist.

If you hit a creative block, what is your top tip for getting through it

There’s a saying by John Cage: Begin Anywhere. That is absolutely a mantra for me, and most especially when feeling blocked. A great example of this actually happened during the darkest point of my life. I was unwell with severe depression and chronic anxiety and had almost a year off work in 2013/14, and this phrase became extremely important to me as an artist, and as a human being! When very frightening mental health problems made it almost impossible to function, this simple phrase became so powerful, because it reminded me it didn’t always need grand plans to just start somewhere - with anything! Even getting dressed became a huge undertaking, so quietly reminding myself to just begin, was a gentle tool. I ended up making a series of images in my bath, because in warm water I felt a lot calmer and more connected to my body when I was ill. So I took the camera with me and just began. Many years later, this series of artworks exploring depression and anxiety was exhibited at the Southbank Centre, and went on to be shown at the David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles! You never know where those small beginnings can lead you... even from the darkest places!

And finally, for fun, if you were a shoe, what type of shoe would you be and why?

I would be a United Nude shoe! This brand is an innovative collaboration between an architect and a designer, and the results are magical strange looking creations. I bought a pair of the Bright Mix boots last year and they are fabulously colourful, and so comfortable... I love the dramatic and imaginative look of them... it’s a shoe that bends and moulds to the wearers foot, two thick sections of elastic hold the foot snugly. For me they are innovative, playful and artistic! And I love that they were created through collaboration!


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