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How art gave me my life back

10 Mar 2021

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Kelly Turner’s ground-breaking book “Radical Remission” uncovered nine key factors to unlock our pathway to healing. This weeks blog by Wigwam member, Hazel Tyrrell, reminds us of one of those factors; about finding your calling, creativity and having reasons to live. In this blog Hazel tells the powerful story about the impact of art in her life and one extraordinary project that has touched so many people.

How Art gave me my Life Back

I had always wanted to be an artist but have done many other jobs whilst bringing up my children. I completed a fine art degree when they were teenagers, graduating in 1996, and did for a time paint a few commissions, but then I had to get some regular paid work and ended up teaching art in a men’s prison for ten years, whilst painting portraits in my spare time.

Until May last year (2020), the last painting I had done was a portrait of my husband Mick, in the summer of 2012. It was 80% finished when I showed it to him as a surprise on his 65th birthday, in July that year. He had been having treatment for bladder cancer, and we then got the news that it had returned and had become aggressive.


I could no longer concentrate on painting or being away from him for hours at a time, so it never got finished. He died two weeks before Christmas that year, from an infection that in his weakened state he could not fight. The trauma of losing him hit me extremely hard.

In the seven and a half years that followed I had not been able to find any motivation to paint. 

I had completely lost my mojo.

It was during this time that I also had to come to terms with the death of my mum.

So then in 2018 I made a special effort to try to find inspiration, by connecting with other local artists, going to painting groups, anything to get me excited enough to want to paint. I did bits and pieces, but it just wasn’t happening.

I needed a reason to paint – it all just seemed so meaningless.

Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2019, and had surgery a week before Christmas. I decided not to have radiotherapy, and not to take Letrazole for 5 years, as I preferred to take a more natural pathway to health. It was a very scary decision to make, I agonised over it for 3 months. I was scared to have radiation and scared to not have it. The inability to make a decision was putting me under intolerable stress. Eventually I had a chat with a second oncologist who understood, and more or less gave me her blessing to say no to radiotherapy.

I spent many hours online looking for research based information, to help me with diet, supplements and therapies, in my endeavor to become as healthy as I can be, in order to stay cancer free.

A personal consultation in January 2020 with Chris Woollams of Cancer Active started me off with a list of supplements and loads of information to digest. While this was going on, so too was the Covid Pandemic gathering speed, and by the time I’d made my decision in March, we were in lockdown. This meant that all the holistic therapies that I’d hoped would support me on my natural healing plan, like hyperbaric oxygen, reflexology, reiki, etc, were no longer available to me. I felt very cut off and vulnerable. Covid had just added another layer of fear to my already fractured mental state.

And then something wonderful happened.

I saw the portrait artist Tom Croft on the BBC News on 21st April. He was talking about how Covid had made him question what he was doing –‘what was the point of a portrait?’ – and then how he had the bright idea of offering a free portrait to the first NHS key worker to contact him through #portraitsfornhsheroes. There was such a huge response that many more artists got involved. It went national and then global.

For me, it was like an epiphany. I just thought – This is me! This was something I could really get excited about because it was worthwhile, it had meaning, and it was just what I needed. So I signed up for it, and my first painting was of an A&E nurse called Sara, who’d had to live apart from her children to protect them from Covid.

Next I painted a teacher in Lockdown, with her kids appearing to be climbing the walls in the background. My third portrait was of an intensive care nurse, also called Sarah, working 12-hour shifts, caring for Covid patients. It felt wonderful to be painting again – I felt like I’d got ME back. I’d re-joined the land of the living. And it was such a lovely feeling to hand over a portrait to a nurse, to say – ‘’we value you, we love you, and thank you”

I was definitely getting my life back on track. This turnaround for me happened all because of another artist’s unselfish sharing of a brilliant idea, and it has been a huge honour for me to be involved in this wonderful venture.

My first portrait of Sara was featured on the front page of the on-line exhibition, which you can view at: Healthcare Heroes, Google Arts & Culture.

This last year has taught me that out of the worst situations, good things can come, and new life can begin. I certainly feel that I am beginning a new kind of life, with exciting creative possibilities, and I am so grateful.