Many incredible things came out of lockdown for artist Dylan Keys.
At age 39, he's already been through alcoholism, suffered anxiety and chronic fatigue. Throughout it all, he used art as therapy because creativity "made sense" to his brain.
"Then in the lockdown, I saw something I wanted to draw, and gave it a go with charcoal."
Dylan's charcoal drawings are so realistic he's had to post videos on his social media channels to prove to followers that he's not posting photos.
I know all too well the sense of loss and frustration that can come from being isolated and housebound
Through his intricately detailed art, he has gained a small following on his Instagram charcoalbydylan and is selling his works in New Zealand and internationally.
Drawings based on photos of people and pets who have died are among his commissioned works.
"My mindset now when I'm doing realism is completely changed. It's a different kind of fulfilment to throwing paint around, but I'm taking charge of my own income, and the reaction when you give that drawing to the person that commissioned it is hugely satisfying."
A year on from nationwide lockdown, he's reflected on its effects, including the feelings of disconnection and isolation brought on by the pandemic.
"I know all too well the sense of loss and frustration that can come from being isolated and housebound because I've been living in a form of lockdown for nearly six years now, kept at home by poor health, both mental and physical," he explains.
From age 17 he battled to overcome severe agoraphobia and panic disorder. It led him to alcohol and drug use until he got sober at age 27.
"I was making great progress until a few years ago when an unfortunate chain of events within the public health system left me not only suffering from even worse mental health struggles than before but now also having to navigate the effects of ME/CFS - myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome.
"The sensations I experience are constant and can vary from challenging to completely overwhelming and debilitating."
He says each day brings symptoms and sensations from fatigue, muscle and joint pain, cognitive impairments, disturbances in vision, sensory overload and dizziness, "and the usual sensations that come with being in a near-constant high-anxiety state".
"It's exhausting to never feel okay in your body, to feel like you're constantly fighting an invisible war while being pushed backwards no matter how hard you try and despite living a healthy lifestyle."
With agoraphobia, he can get outside in a car with someone he can trust: "But I couldn't go next door if it was really busy with lots of people."
The "invisible" chronic illness can make it harder for people to see or understand the struggle.
"Being unable to live a 'normal' life or find fulfilment in the ways that most do has forced me to find other ways to keep my mind stimulated."That's where I rely on creativity."
He says he doesn't want attention, but he's always been open about his mental health.
Dylan received a grant from the Mental Health Foundation for an exhibition of his paintings, but it was realism that opened up a profitable creative avenue, serving a dual purpose while in lockdown.
"Instead of the usual boredom I'd always felt when drawing realism, something else happened. I began to find myself in an almost meditative state; the concentration required to draw such detailed work, though tiring and usually leaving me needing to sleep after an hour of work, brought about a calmness and momentarily distracted me from the pain and sensations throughout my body.
"Suddenly it wasn't really about what I was drawing or the finished artwork, instead it became about using the process of observational drawing as a therapeutic tool.
"I decided to make drawing in this way a part of my daily wellness routine and when I started posting the finished drawings to my Instagram account, people seemed to enjoy them."
The drawings caught the attention of leading motivational speaker Craig Harper, who is also a writer and educator in the areas of health, high performance and personal transformation.
Craig wrote: "I stumbled across Dylan's art on social media and thought he was brilliant so I told him so. We got chatting and I soon realised that the humble, shy, gifted artist was essentially unknown and unpaid, which to me, needed to change.
"We got the wheels turning with some exposure to my audience via my online platforms and podcast and as I expected, they love his art, love him and recognise his talent.
"Watching Dylan evolve as an artist and as a person dealing with some challenges has been a gift and I'm excited to see where he and his art go in the future."
With Craig's encouragement and mentorship, Dylan set up www.charcoalbydylan.com and began to sell his work - original works, limited edition prints and also commissioned works.
A creative mind and highly sensitive person is a gift that comes with its burdens.
"You see things a certain way and you need to express yourself. It's just never-ending because you are always thinking, you are always feeling. It's a burden I suspect that a lot of creative people feel, that busyness of mind."
But his priority is to work every day towards regaining health and freedom.
"If I can attract more collectors of my work and maybe even fulfil my lifelong dream of being a full-time artist that'd be amazing.
"Regardless, I'll continue to use these drawings as a tool to help myself heal and hopefully in the process bring others some kind of enjoyment."
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