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Opportunities from chaos

Gisborne artist Steph Barnett wanted to tell her story with the mental health perspective firmly up front.

At the end of last year Steph decided to spend 100 days earning $100 a day, purely from her art. She quit her job.

Reactions from people when she told them were along the lines of, “How cool to leave your job and become an artist”.

But in reality, said Steph, it came from hitting burnout and falling into a deep depression.

She had had brushes with depression since she was 20. The dark patches would last a few days.

“I often feel quite content with how I manage my mental health though daily well-ness routines.

“I can usually see the hole before I fall into it. So I up my self care. But this was a bit different.

“I suddenly hit the wall and was in a space at home in Gisborne where I couldn’t even get out of bed to feed myself. I found it overwhelming.”

The thought of getting up to put toast in the toaster was too hard, as was the possibility of bumping into a flatmate while doing so.

If Steph received a text message and needed to reply, anxiety would overwhelm her.

Knowing it was bad, she called her parents in Wellington and organised to come home.

“I am not a guest,” she told them.

“I’m an invalid. You will need to look after me.”

Steph had hit burnout and was falling into a fast and deep depression.

She had been working with youth in Gisborne who had a history of trauma. It was a goal she had worked towards for years.

Suddenly not being able to manage it gave her a sense of failure. She compared herself to colleagues who could cope and had families to look after as well.

The all-consuming depression lasted around three weeks.

Steph found herself turning to her art.

She remembers being in her bed in Wellington drawing an animation of a girl knitting her own cocoon.

“She falls into it and becomes a butterfly.”

For Steph it was also a metaphor for how she was going to reframe things in her life too.

She emerged with a plan — the last 100 days of her 20s were coming up. She quite liked that number and started to play with it, coming up with making $100 a day from her art — no other job.

“If I am totally honest the 100 days was kind of like being in a kiddy pool.

“It was a safe space. If I couldn’t swim, I could still touch the bottom.

“Now I feel like I have been thrown in the big pool.”

Steph reached her goal of $10,000 over 100 days from selling her art, but now has to start doing things like engage an accountant.

At 30, she also wants to enter the “crazy” housing market.

“Knowing I want to buy a place, and being able to do so as an artist feels like a lofty goal.”

Steph dived in the deep end without knowing whether art as a job would work.

“I felt I’m not ready, I don’t know enough. A lot of deficit thinking.

“But if you dive in, you’re going to find out. And failure is not that big a deal.”

Financially she had a buffer and she had no dependent children, so it felt like a good time to find out.

She also found out that her time as an artist was worth more than $100 a day.

It taught Steph how nice life was when you make it up as you go along.

“It’s quite fun.

“A lot of opportunities come from chaos.”

She describes her depression as “like an annoying relative, who you know you have to look after”.

“But they show you something. They teach you it’s important to look after everybody.

“When you’re young you can’t imagine it will end.”

“Getting older, and going in and out of depression a few times, you can begin to imagine there will be an out.”

Steph came to Gisborne in 2015. She said it was like falling in love with a person.

“That’s how I felt about this region, and I still feel exactly the same.”

She has immense gratitude for the Tairawhiti community.

“I feel like it’s a safe space to feel really authentic. People value authenticity here, you don’t have to pretend to be anyone you’re not and people will support you.

“I had a lot of support from Gisborne Boardriders, Gizzy Local and Miharo Gallery.

“I can’t imagine doing what I’ve done anywhere else.

“The Tairawhiti community is very supportive of art and wellbeing. . . of not chasing the money but the lifestyle.”

Steph uses a wide variety of mediums for her art.

Digital art has been the best financially with no ongoing costs once set up.

Painting was a different process, “because you can dive in and work it out as you go along”.

“A lot of my art has a social context. (It shows) my journey around mental health, and being female.”

Steph’s birthday on January 20 was the end of her $100 for 100 day journey.

But really, it is just the beginning, she says.

ART AS A JOB: Hitting burnout and falling into a deep depression meant Gisborne woman Steph Barnett had to reframe how she approached life. It has brought the most rewarding journey. Steph’s website is www.stephmarybarnett.com and you can follow Steph on Instagram @stephmarybarnett. Picture by Ellen Taylor

Leave a Reply to Diana Hennin, Auckland Cancel reply

  1. Mary McClutchie says:

    Thank you for sharing your story Koka Steph, and your honesty – makes me appreciate each day and those around me, much love 💕

  2. Diana Hennin, Auckland says:

    Such a beautiful story Steph. I love and admire your bravery, being so open about your journey. And the way your art speaks for itself.