The fine art of recovery: Andy’s story

Mental Health

Depression forced Andy out of the teaching career he’d enjoyed for years. Then a challenge from a friend revealed a hidden talent – and opened a door to a new life

After seven mental breakdowns in 16 years, what have I learned? That the lows can be crushing; but that there is also an amazing ability to keep going, to search for something brighter. There’s been a big change of career along the way, as well. This is my story about hope, how important it is to keep talking, and how art rescued my life.

When I started a photography blog in January 2011, I had no idea about the journey I was starting. How only a few years later, it would become a huge part of my life and my ongoing mental health journey.

As a society, we are getting better at talking about mental health. And the funny thing is that when you start talking, not only do you make yourself more open and vulnerable, but you make others around you open up and understand that it’s OK to be vulnerable, too. It’s a safe space.

I have had highs and lows in my mental health for years. I was a geography teacher for decades and spent hours drawing places like Old Harry Rocks and the Dorset Jurassic Coast to explain erosion or rock strata. I now live on that same coast and instead of drawing rock strata, I draw for my new career – as an artist with my own gallery in Swanage.

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During my time teaching, I always found that because I was open about mental health, my students would come to talk to me. I always did what I could, and campaigned to get support for students. It’s important that people feel believed and supported once they have been brave enough to speak up.

In November 2013, after another phase of depression, I was signed off work. I wondered if I’d ever return to the classroom, and what I’d do next. I was on medication and tried an online ‘Beating the Blues’ cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) course. I thought: OK, therapy and meds, what else can I do? I went walking, cycling, and kayaking.

I felt like a hexagonal peg in a round hole and, despite my best efforts, at the end of September 2015 I was at the lowest I had been in a very long time. I had always come out of times like this before, but in that moment, I was totally lost.

That October, I was signed off work and reviewed my medication with my GP. I kept telling myself I would come out of it – I just didn’t know when. But in that darkness, there was a bit of light; a teacher friend set me an art challenge, and I did my own unique interpretation of ‘Balinese Girl’ by Vladimir Tretchikoff.

I sent it off and eagerly awaited feedback – which was supportive. I have always loved using marker pens to draw, but I was put off art at school. But the truth is that art is for everyone, it’s not about being the best, it’s about having fun and enjoying that moment.

In May 2016 I had an interview for a teaching job in Dorset, and ended up moving to the county. Sadly, six months later, after another period of depression, I did what I had thought unthinkable – I left teaching.

I left in tears and drove and drove, feeling like I couldn’t go home to those I loved as I believed I had failed them. My mood was lurching like a subterranean rollercoaster, occasionally surfacing briefly before plunging back into another dark, dank tunnel. I did, however, manage to get out to explore the coastline, taking photos and doing sketches.

It took time to grieve for the career I’d spent 30 of my 52 years working in, but eventually, on 31 January, 2017, I started my art blog. I never thought of myself as an artist, it was just something I loved to do. But I became engrossed, and completed several artworks a day. I could focus, and the racing thoughts just left for a bit.

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I drew a sketch of the beach huts at Swanage and went to the local Tourist Information Centre – they didn’t have anything like them, so I suggested they stocked them. To my great surprise, they loved the idea. From there, I started doing different artworks based around the area.

I signed up to show some work at Purbeck Arts Week, and created as much as I could to fill the space. I even did an art installation where I drew on boilersuits – the kids thought it was great fun!

Having built up my work online and through my blog, I took the plunge in November 2019 and, together with another artist, opened The Courtyard Studio in the heart of Swanage. I’m passionate about encouraging people to try art, especially those who have been put off before – you just need to have fun!

People think I’m an extrovert, with my loud boiler suits and hats, but I’m actually quite shy. When my depression is bad, I literally hide. I will curl up under a duvet and I won’t leave the room. I withdraw into myself.

I’m now a professional artist, but that’s not to say that every day is easy. The last year, with Covid-19 and the lockdowns, has brought its own unique set of challenges. But I know now that if I can get out and walk along the beautiful Jurassic Coast, I will feel better.

January marked the fourth anniversary of my business, and what a journey it has been. From not feeling like ‘a real artist’, to opening my own gallery, I feel proud of what I have created. Drawing really has rescued my life.

I can lose hours in my drawing; I’m so focused I rarely notice people watching. I now live a stone’s throw from the sea, and life is good. It’s up, it’s down, but it’s always a rich tapestry.

I’d like to say to anyone who is going through this, please keep talking. Find someone you are comfortable with to talk to, someone you trust. Try to be open to different treatment options. I have been on medication for 20 years, learned CBT, and find exercise really helps. If it is your thing, look for a support group. Keep an eye out for your friends, especially if they go quiet – they are often the ones that need the most help. Be kind to yourself. Remember that to help others, you have to be in a good place yourself.

Find my website at andyknillart.com, and I’ll hopefully make you smile. And if you’re ever in Swanage, please pop by and say hello!


Rachel Coffey | BA MA NLP Mstr says:

Andy’s heart warming story shows us that we’re all unique in our experience and talents. In exploring his creativity, not only did he support his mental health, but also found a new career.

It can be easy to try to make ourselves stick with something that we’ve already put a lot of time and effort into, even if it no longer suits us. There’s a fear of failure attached to ‘giving up’. Instead, think about it as moving forward. It takes bravery to make the first step, the reward is freedom and true opportunity.


To connect with a counsellor to discuss ways to manage depressive episodes or feelings of failure, visit counselling-directory.org.uk

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