SINGAPORE: It’s a late Thursday morning on the Downtown Line and Liz Atkin settles into one of the carriages. She promptly pulls out a copy of the day’s newspaper and leafs through it. Spotting an ad that catches her eye, she takes out a charcoal stick and begins shading and sketching on it.
After a couple of minutes, she looks up and sees a curious fellow passenger. She hands it to him - and proceeds to do another one.
For the next few days, you might spot the 40-year-old UK artist on the train, furiously drawing on newspapers and giving these away to lucky random commuters. It is part of Atkin’s performance for the ongoing M1 Singapore Fringe Festival called #CompulsiveCharcoal, where she’ll be sketching on the train until Jan 15.
But it’s not just about giving her art away for nothing. It’s also a way of coping with a physical and mental condition she’s had since the age of four.
DEALING WITH A DISORDER
Atkin has Compulsive Skin Picking (CSP), an obsessive-compulsive disorder characterised by the need to constantly pick at one’s skin. It affects as many as one in 20 people. To deal with it, Atkin keeps herself (and her hands) preoccupied with drawing.
A selection of drawings done during commutes on the London Tube. (Photo: Liz Atkin's website)
“I would pick my hands, my face, my back, my feet, any part of the body where I would feel there was something odd going on - my hands would go into it and pick at it. I would even do it in my sleep. I hid it from people in my life for a long time. And now, drawing has become a really powerful thing to stop this illness from happening,” she told Channel NewsAsia.
#CompulsiveCharcoal began 18 months ago by accident. A friend had given her a box of charcoal sticks as a present and, to stave off panic attacks and keep her focused during her long commutes on the London Underground, Atkin started drawing in sketchbooks.
During one of those trips, she ran out of pages, so she decided to draw on free newspapers that were littered all over London’s trains. After she posted an image of her work on Instagram, it garnered a lot of positive reaction.
“It’s a kind of recycling; grabbing newspapers and upcycling them. The next time I got on the Tube, I did the same thing and now, it’s a thing I do wherever I am,” said Atkin, who also sketches on planes and buses.
ART IN A JIFFY
Each of her “graffiti” drawings take about a minute to do and she can whip out around 60 a day. “I’ve done about 10,000, to give you an idea of the kind of compulsive nature of these drawings,” she said.
Because of its grainy texture, charcoal is a physical distraction, too. And because her hands can get dirty, she also avoids touching her skin.
But aside from its personal benefits, it’s also a way of connecting with people.
Taking a photo of her latest work in Singapore, before posting on Twitter and Instagram. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
“People wonder why I’m doing this, drawing in the middle of the carriage. So sometimes it’s about catching the eye of people around me to sort of acknowledge that is happening in a public place. And once the drawing is finished, I give it to whoever’s near me. And I offer it to them as a free gift. I don’t need the drawings, I just need to do them. So I give them away to whoever’s near me.”
For her Singapore trip, she’s also giving out postcards that explains CSP and encourages people to tweet or post on Instagram using the hashtag #compulsivecharcoal.
RE-THINKING HER SKIN
Apart from drawing, many of Atkin’s works also revolve around dealing with her condition.
“Most of my artworks are large photographs of my own body transformed with paint or pastel dust or acrylics - stuff that transforms the surface of the body. So it’s very much about re-thinking my skin. You know, my skin has been this problem all my life so for me, finding creative ways to turn it into something else, it’s all about transformation,” she said.
Atkin has also been active in giving talks about her experience with CSP, as well as teaching art at schools, hospitals, hospices and prisons. In fact, when she’s not train-hopping in Singapore, she’ll be giving a few talks and workshops, too.
“I didn’t wear T-shirts for 10 years because my arms were badly marked and scarred,” she recalled. “So getting to grips with (CSP) and finding a way to own it and change it to something positive, has been extremely powerful. Art is my tool for recovery. Art is what got me better.”