Experience: I can only paint in my sleep | Art and design

When I was in school I hated art. Growing up in North Wales, I couldn’t get higher than an E on my final exam. I wasn’t too bothered; I thought I wouldn’t pursue it as a career.

By the time I was about four years old, I started sleepwalking. ‘at night, I used to go under the stairs and scribble on the wall. I have a clear memory of sitting in the doctor’s waiting room getting checked out as a seven-year-old. The doctor was adamant that nothing was wrong and advised my parents to “let him have his way”.

When I was 15, I was still getting up in the middle of the night to make art – even when I was staying with a friend. At this point I was no longer just scribbling. I sketched everything from portraits of Marilyn Monroe to abstract noughts and crosses and fairies.

I showed some to my art teachers. They said, “Why can’t you do this in class?” It was something I struggled to understand myself. I tried so hard to draw when I was awake, practicing and using the same tools. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t replicate the drawings.

Once I left school, I became a nurse and hospice caretaker, mainly helping people with brain injuries. I also met my partner. We’ve been together for 23 years and he’s still been supportive of my art and sleepwalking habits – he often films me while I work. It’s very strange to watch videos of me painting because I don’t remember any of it. I often wake up feeling like I did something in my sleep, but I can never quite remember what. I paint with both hands, but when awake I am only right-handed.

I leave my art supplies in my drawers and when I sleep I know where to go. At a friend’s house I drew on drywall with chicken bones and coals left over from a barbecue we’d had in the garden. I use every tool I can find, sometimes knives and forks. That’s the only thing my partner is worried about – that I’ll accidentally hurt myself. But it hasn’t happened so far.

I have gone to several sleep clinics to try to get to the bottom of what is going on. They saw the videos and observed me sleeping. I was plugged in, my heart rate was checked at night and I was kept awake for 36 hours for experiments, but nothing out of the ordinary was found in terms of health. However, due to alcohol or sleep deprivation, sleepwalking becomes more so, so I am careful about that.

I learned to embrace my unusual talent and in 2007 put on my first art show at my local library to raise money for cancer research. I bought frames for £1, cut out my artwork and stuck them on the walls. Within a week I received 160 phone calls from various media outlets and organizations wanting to hear about my art. I was over the moon. I then decided to quit my very fulfilling job in nursing and become a full-time artist.

People sometimes assume that I always paint a fully developed piece of art at night. In reality, my success rate is more like one in 50. I’ve messed things up in my sleep before. Sometimes I’ll make random squiggles or lines, only to go back and complete them three months later. Now that I’m actually selling my work as a career, there can be pressure to produce more.

Sometimes I go months without drawing or painting anything, and every now and then I do something I’m proud of. I’ve had to learn to go with the flow, which makes me relaxed enough to produce more work. I usually do about 20 pieces a year. Kim Kardashian had two of my Marilyn Monroes in her Met Gala dressing room this year.

Some people have tried to link my abilities to childhood traumas, which personally doesn’t make sense to me. Others have wondered if I am real. I’m also not worried because I don’t feel like I have anything to prove and really enjoy what I do. I do feel a little guilty that there are people out there who study art all their lives and then I come over and do it in my sleep. I’m lucky that my subconscious has given me a career that really makes me happy. My advice to my younger self? Take your art exam in your sleep.

As told to Elizabeth McCafferty

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