What would you do if you were told you were too ill to work? Would you take that as truth or do something about it to still have a career and be able to support yourself and your family?
The final She Means Business of 2014 chats to an inspirational woman, Carrie Beckwith, an artist who hasn’t allowed her ill health stand in the way of her career and running her own business Art Of A Thousand Words.
What made you take the leap into working for yourself?
I had been out of work for a number of years due to serious health issues. I was advised by my doctors to accept I would never work again, but I refused. The idea of working for myself, being my own boss, was exciting but I was convinced I couldn’t possibly do it. The idea of tax returns terrified me, but more so was the idea that no one would like my work. I had tried self-employment before, but it hadn’t worked out as the physical demand had made my condition deteriorate. I was bedridden for a year and spent a further year in specialist physiotherapy to learn how to sit up and stand again. I was frightened the same would happen again and I couldn’t bear the thought of losing everything. Then one day I just decided there and then I was going to do it. I phoned HMRC and said, “I’m setting up my own business on Monday”. I couldn’t get any start-up advice or support, but I didn’t want to wait any longer and be talked out of it so I took a leap of faith. My business has been up and running for 16 months.
Where do you get the inspiration for your artwork?
For me, art MUST tell a story. It must be emotive and stir a response, and it’s that emotion that inspires my work. I often see people on news reports and their story really touches me. The creative cogs start turning and I’m soon working on a design.
Most of my current work for customers is word-art. It wasn’t something I wanted to get into. In fact, I really resisted at first. I was asked to create a word-based image of a wren for a family member, who had served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. I didn’t think much of it until I started work on it, and discovered she had led an extraordinary life. The final piece told her story, a story that spoke of sacrifice, servitude, dedication and risk. She was thrilled with the final piece and shared it with her friends. My inbox was flooded with orders within hours, and I was booked solid for months. As I read the stories of the women who were ordering I was deeply moved. I was hooked and my business got it’s new name, “Art of a Thousand Words”.
How does your medical condition affect your work?
I have a complex multi-systemic connective tissue disorder called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. I also have Dysautonomia and Gastroparesis. I use a wheelchair and rely on a feeding tube, which bypasses my stomach and delivers food into my small intestine 24hrs a day. It impacts on my work massively. I can’t set specific work hours as I don’t know how I will be on any given day. Chronic fatigue and pain are a major part of my condition, so I have to work in short bursts in order not to overdo it. I’m at the hospital for appointments a lot, and visit my local hospice for support and treatment fortnightly. I have carers daily and nurses visiting regularly.
It can be impossible at times to sit down and work when I am well enough, simply because of how hectic life is, and dragging an IV pole around with me when I’m in the midst of a creative surge can be restricting. However, my job is ideal in other ways. I create a lot of my work using an ipad. I can work from my bed on bad days, catch up with work during the night when I can’t sleep, and I’ve even worked from my hospital bed the day after surgery.
There are times when my work must come second. It’s difficult to switch off at times, but I know there may come a time when I have to give up work as my condition deteriorates. It is a balancing act, wanting to develop my business further but knowing I have limits and I must put my health first.
What is your favourite type of art to do?
My favourite type of art to create is abstract. Each person that views it can see something new and unique to themselves. An abstract piece can evoke sadness in one person and happiness in another. I recently exhibited two pieces in Liverpool Academy of Arts, and I would love to have the time and opportunity to work on abstract pieces more. I also love figurative work. I love the human form and find it incredibly versatile as a stimulus.
As you work from home, how do you find your customers?
Most of my customers come via facebook and word-of-mouth. I’m hoping to set up an online selling platform such as an etsy shop, as well as a website/blog in the future to gain further reach.
Describe a typical day for you
There is no typical day for me, which keeps things interesting.
On a ‘good work day’, my carers get me up and ready for 10am.
If I don’t have appointments and I’m able to get straight onto work, I start off by checking my facebook business page. I reply to messages and comments, then make a start on my emails.
If I have orders I collect any new order forms and begin work on the designs.
Sometimes customers can miss important details off their forms or there are spellings I am unsure of, like quirky names, so I contact them to ensure I have all the correct information.
I usually have a rest at this point, pop the kettle on and visit my personal facebook page for some business networking.
Next, I work on mounting, framing, and packing orders before returning to the design side of things.
If I need to post orders or buy supplies, I’ll head out for a couple of hours, which gives me a good break from the computer screen and stops my muscles from spasming from sitting too long.
I finish work with accounts, reading up on business related news, and some market research.
Besides art, what are your other hobbies?
When I’m not working, I also help manage a charity called GIFTuk (Gastroparesis and Intestinal Failure Trust). It offers support and advice for people with Gastroparesis, as well as raising awareness within the medical community. I also love reading, and as my partner is a novelist I’m never short of new books to read. I am currently getting into Nordic Noir TV shows, which combined with my love of anything in a boxset, means I spend a lot of time curled up on the sofa in front of the tv.
What would your advice be to others who suffer from a medical condition who would like to work?
My best advice would be to take the risk and just do it. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter. You haven’t failed, it just wasn’t the right time.
There are many reasons that prevent us from working (other than the actual health condition) including self-doubt, thinking that nobody will give us a chance, and the benefit system. I was constantly told by the job centre to not work because I’d be worse off financially. Yes, I am, but I would rather be doing what I love while I can.
If there is business start-up support available, take it! I really struggled at first, and still do at times with certain business things, due to not having the support in the beginning. I’ve had to learn as I’ve gone along, and it has been incredibly stressful at times. That stress has had an effect on my physical health, so make sure you get as much support with the business side of things as you can.
If you do start work, know your limits, listen to your body, and speak openly with your doctors about your job and how your condition affects it. You need a good team of medical folk behind you to get you through the stressful and difficult periods of working, so that your body doesn’t take the brunt of the stress.
Finally, be prepared to adapt and change plans. I had to give up my studio, as the 15 minute commute was having a huge effect on my pain, leaving me stuck in bed for days. I was devastated to move my ‘office’ into my living room, but it’s turned out for the best and I can work more as a result.
What’s next for Art Of A Thousand Words?
I want to start a papercut range with the focus on designing templates for other artists to use. I also currently have a commission for a local business, and hope to develop a card range from that. It would be great to have more time to work on my figurative and print work. If I could see my work for sale in a local shop, I’d be incredibly happy.
I would love to get back into the classroom. My degree is in Arts Education and I would love to work with adults, probably women who experience barriers to work related tasks, offering workshops, a regular craft group, or similar. If ‘Art of a Thousand Words’ could tell any story, it would be of the incredible therapeutic and healing effect of art.
To find out more about Art of a Thousand Words or to check out Carrie’s incredible art pieces check out her Facebook page www.facebook.com/artofathousandwords