My Herne Bay: Paul Mitchell
WHEN Paul Mitchell was diagnosed with a debilitating illness that left him housebound for years, he refused to see it as a disaster.
Instead, he used his six years stuck at home to concentrate on honing his skills as an artist and turned his talent into a successful business when he recovered.
Paul, 35, of Silverdale Drive, Broomfield, is now looking forward to his first London exhibition and a new partnership providing pet portraits.
Liz Crudgington went to find out more.
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Tell me about your illness.
It's called Meniere's Syndrome and it's an imbalance of the middle ear. It all started when I collapsed at work, at an art shop in Canterbury. I ended up out of the market for eight years. I was at home for six of those years. I went through anxiety, depression and uncertainty, I had panic attacks and severe vertigo and dizziness. I also had tinnitus and extreme sensitivity to noise. Some days I couldn't get out of bed.
It was horrendous but it seems like it was 20 years ago now, rather than three years.
How did you cope?
My art kept me going. I had time to consider and think about what I wanted to do. It is funny how good things come from bad. I managed to do tons of work and I went on a cartoon and illustration course. I had been sending my work to publishers but getting rejection letters and I think I really need the time to focus on it and to make my work better. It made me realise life is precious. I don't want to be old and wishing I had done something different, and I didn't want to waste the time.
How did you start to get better?
I did hypnotherapy and homeopathy and began to get more confidence. Medication has stabilised the condition but I still have some bad days, ringing in my ears and panic attacks, but being self-employed means I can work around the disability.
When I started to get better I went to see an advisor from a charity who help disabled people with work to see if it was a viable business and if I could get some support and it all went from there. I spent six months finding out about promoting myself and I began to get the confidence to go off benefits. It was just baby steps, taking calculated risks and expanding my boundaries. It's a massive leap from where I was when I was ill to where I am now but it's been slow and gradual and I think that is the only way to do it. You have to have goals and be determined to achieve them.
If someone had told me four years ago I would be exhibiting in London I would have thought they were mad. It's been a journey that's terrifying and exciting in equal measure.
How is the business going now?
It's growing all the time and I have been getting some good commissions. Taking the plunge has definitely paid off. It is a good time to be self-employed at the moment because if I can survive through the rough times I know it will be fine after the recession. To be a commercial artist you have to be flexible and I'm learning that.
Do you just do portraits and paintings?
No, I've illustrated a children's book and provided the cover artwork for another two. That was another case of being in the right place at the right time; I went to a networking event and I was chatting to another artist when the author of the book overheard and said she needed an illustrator for the book. It's a great feeling to have my name on the cover of a book! It's a massive achievement to come from a chance meeting. Next year my goal is to go to more of these meetings because you never know who you will meet.
I've also just started offering pet portraits after teaming up with a friend who is a dog psychologist and canine healer. A new website will be launched soon for that.
What about your exhibitions?
I've had quite a few locally and I love them because it's great to talk to the people who come in. Again, anyone could walk through the door and that's how I got the exhibition in London. A lawyer visited my friend's exhibition and said he was looking for work to display in London and my friend recommended me. The exhibition will be at Cloisters in Temple Court, London, next year.
Your house is full of your own work - is it hard to sell it?
A little piece of me goes with every painting I sell but I have to be business-like about it. I have done tons of work and it is hard to let go of it but I usually know it is going to a good home. Sometimes people send me photos of my art on their wall and I love knowing that something I made from scratch gives them so much pleasure.
It used to be that you had to be dead before you were successful as an artist but I think Damien Hirst is doing okay! Once I turned 30 I think people started taking me more seriously and I think that's the same in most professions.
What have been your most interesting commissions?
I did some work for Herne Bay seafront two years ago, reproducing famous paintings as giant boards with cutouts for people to put their heads in. That was quite fun.
How long have you been in Herne Bay?
Since 1997 and I love it here. I've signed up to the Bay Card to give discounts to customers and that's just one of the things that makes it feel like a real community here. Although I work by myself I never feel like I'm on my own because we are all fighting the same things.
Would you change anything about the town?
I think the museum should be saved instead of closed as the council are planning as part of their budget cuts. We need to encourage more people to the down and I think closing it would drive people away. Small businesses need more encouragement and the town needs more cultural outlets.
But I love the seafront.
What was your first job?
It was a Saturday job in a shoe shop. I quite liked it. Shop work is good because it develops your people skills. I also worked in a bingo hall as a washer-upper and once, during a national game, I dropped a load of plates. There is nothing more intimidating and emotionally scarring than a room full of 50-year-old women armed with bingo markers glaring at you. Their expressions have stayed with me and they inspire me in cartoons and illustrations.
For more information on Paul's work, visit www.paulmitchellartist.co.uk. He is staging a Christmas exhibition, with paintings, cards and prints, at the Bay Art Gallery in William Street from December 17 to 20.