This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
Illustrator Mari Andrew pulls from her own emotions and experiences to depict the complexities of life that touch us all—from grief and loneliness to healing and new love. In the space of three years, her candid drawings have attracted nearly 800,000 followers on Instagram. Here, the 31-year-old talks about discovering watercolors (at 28), her recovery from a terrifying autoimmune disorder, and what she hopes to convey through her work.
What inspired you to start drawing back in 2015?
I was experiencing a very rough breakup, my father's death, and some health issues, but what I was really going through was isolation and dissatisfaction. When you're at rock bottom, you see your life very clearly. I truly realized that I was not immortal, and that there was so much I wanted to do—including write a book! I made a long list of things I wanted to do (my own little happiness project), and one of those many things was more painting with watercolors. I always found it so soothing. So I bought some $3 watercolors and a table, and decided to make it a daily practice. It was a difficult period of my life, but also so ablaze with possibility and wonder and fresh energy.
As you were finding your way forward, how did you stay motivated?
I was so desperate to create happiness that I didn't really need any extra motivation! I think that's the beauty of being in a dark place; you are constantly grasping at stars. Now that I'm in a pretty good place in life, I'm not so desperate to carve out joy, so I'm slightly less motivated to seek it out. I actually put reminders on my calendar, like "Go to a new museum this week," or, "Look into Portuguese lessons." If I don't write it down, it can be easy to just let life happen and not be so self-initiating.
Many of your drawings focus on healing and recovery—how long have you've been dealing with your health crisis?
While I was in Spain finishing my book, I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an extremely rare and aggressive autoimmune disease that can paralyze your entire body. It was completely random and really came out of nowhere. Needless to say, it was terrifying to lose mobility in my legs and arms within two days. It was a horrific time of life, one in which I became intimate with the suffering that so many people live with permanently. The world is just not built for people with disabilities, and the lack of accessibility made me feel even more isolated and heartbroken during recovery.
Did drawing help you cope?
I don't know that art really helped me cope (dancing was a better healer!), but in all candor, I feel blessed that I have more experiences to express now. Before I got sick, I think I knew a lot about the human experience and some universal experiences, but health issues certainly brought up many new feelings for me. I would never wish to go through what I went through, but I do think that it gave me a new tool to relate to people, and a new power to heal people.
How are you doing now?
It's traumatic. I read that the definition of trauma is anything happening to you without your consent. I feel that. I'm deeply wounded by it. I think I'll need a lifetime of therapy to fully process it. Like any trauma, I think about it constantly. I talk about it a lot with my mom—who came to the hospital to be with me—and replay a lot of those horrible moments. It's so hard to explain to anyone else; I'm thankful my mom was there to share a bit of it with me, because otherwise I think it would be overwhelmingly isolating. I am in therapy and will continue to go as a means of healing!
What's your creative process like these days?
Drawing every single day has really strengthened my creative muscle, so now the ideas just pop into my head during conversations, walks, or sleep! I know it sounds hokey, but I believe that ideas are swirling around in the ethers and they will "visit" the artists and creators they know are the most reliable to carry them out. Because I draw and write daily, I think ideas know to tap me on the shoulder often because they know I'll put them on paper. I'm a faithful friend to ideas.
How do you feel about sharing yourself and your art on Instagram?
I know the difference between art to share, and art to keep private. I don't make art about anything that I haven't processed first; that's what my journal is for. So, by the time I've processed it, I feel relatively detached. I don't put work in public to get advice or to heal; I put it out there to create space for people who might feel alone in their own experiences to know that they are "normal" and not alone.
You didn't discover drawing until your late 20s. What would you tell others who are still trying to find their "‘thing"?
Drawing is one activity that I enjoy doing every day, along with many other activities I enjoy doing every day. I encourage anybody to do anything that brings their days a little more sunshine and happiness. Life is about exploring and experimenting and seeking joy, and that's how drawing came into my life. I hope to find many more things throughout life that bring me joy! I'm still not sure exactly what my career will be, and I'm so excited to keep finding out.
Mari Andrew's book, Am I There Yet?: The Loop-de-loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood ($20, amazon.com), is out now.
We want to hear about more #RealLifeStrong women. Nominate yourself—or a friend or family member—here. We’ll be sharing the most inspiring stories we receive in the months ahead.