By Jodi Bryant
Every day, Jan Leitch longingly peered out the bus window at the art school she should have been attending while on her way to work at the hospital.
Every fibre of her being wanted to draw and create. Instead she was nursing people at the end of their lives.
However, it was this vocation which lead to her decision to follow her dream.
"Being in the privileged position of caring for people at the end of life showed me that you must be brave enough to chase your dream, even if you never get there. Life is a journey and we all have the same final destination - you just have to make sure you are on the right bus."
Jan's earliest memory of art is reading the Garfield strip on the back of the paper and trying to replicate her own version.
Her dad would always hand the back page over the breakfast table to his avid comic-loving daughter so she could absorb the cartoon. Then he started ordering the Beano comic to be delivered with the newspaper but was quite taken with it himself.
"It drove me crazy that he always got to read it first. He would hide it inside the 'sensible' paper and pretend it hadn't arrived yet!" recalls Jan, who grew up in Scotland.
"I grew up before Netflix so cartoon hour was a big event in our house. We would race to the lounge and I would watch entranced as Tom and Jerry chased each other around causing chaos."
Jan subsequently drew caricatures of people wherever she went and spent most of her high school years 'hiding out' in the art rooms during breaks.
However, art wasn't seen as a valued or realistic career choice in those days, so she took a few gap years while trying to figure out a direction.
She fell into nursing after witnessing her aunt go through terminal cancer. "It made sense as I loved looking after people and I could take it travelling."
After qualifying, Jan worked as a relief nurse across acute medical and surgical wards, hospice and nursing homes.
"Nursing opens your eyes to real human suffering, sadness and death… So much death. I really struggled to switch off my emotions at the end of the day. People stay with you. I often came home and cried after a hard shift. We all know we are going to die one day, but I realised it could be literally any day, even later today.
"The bus to the Old Royal Infirmary (hospital) passed by the Edinburgh Art College on its route. I remember thinking how p***** off I would be if this bus crashed and I was killed when I knew I shouldn't even be on this bus. I should be on the bus to the art school."
Jan's parents backed her to do a private foundation year at Leith School of Art and she remembers her dad being blown away, saying he'd had no idea how talented she was. This led to them paying her fees for art college. Jan also won a scholarship to undertake a master's degree – exclusive to one student each year. However, her nursing qualification meant she wasn't eligible to receive it.
But becoming a mum has been the best education, she believes, and after her art hit a lull while she undertook this role amid a move to New Zealand, it was resurrected with a comment from her daughter.
"After my relationship broke down, I was suddenly a single parent of two young children living on the opposite side of the planet to all my family, and I couldn't go home. I took my kids for a walk through the mangroves with my neighbour. My daughter was five and she turned to my neighbour and asked if she had seen the mouse that just ran past.
"My neighbour squealed and said 'No!'
"'That's a pity,' replied my daughter, without skipping a beat. 'She had the prettiest yellow dress on.'
"Pure imagination. I got home and I drew a mouse for her. We all laughed and it felt good. It had been such a long time since I had laughed. I knew then I owed it to my kids to keep up with my art and my ideas and not lose hope. How can I ask them to try if I'm not going to? I decided to get back on the art bus!"
At the beginning of last year, Jan undertook a writing for picture books module at NorthTec. It was led by a lady called Margaret Cahill, who Jan feels grateful to have had the opportunity to meet and learn from.
Jan now draws most days either with charcoal or she creates digital fast everyday scenes with a humorous spin, drawing directly into Photoshop.
"I love charcoal drawing as it's a bit like sculpting dust particles on paper; concentrated drawing where I can luxuriate on the details. On the flip side, I do a lot of digital drawing when I am doodling thoughts or little cartoons. Fast, immediate description of a particular emotion or thought. I love that I can take a drawing and have it express an emotion. When my kids laugh at something I have drawn or written, the sound of their laughter is magical. Human connection though art is a little like magic though."
Jan is currently working on several children's stories as well as illustrating a book for a friend, and says it's her kids, now aged eight and five, who inspire her every day.
She runs a Facebook page called Chalk 'N' Charcoal - a space where she 'thinks out loud' and a platform for some of her sketches.
"I think sometimes the hardest part of being an artist for me is believing in myself and showing my work," she muses.
Many of her works include animals, her favourite subject to draw.
"There is so much variety in form and every colour combination imaginable. Their outfits are better than any fashion show I have seen; fabulous furs, spectacular scales and our feathered friends are phenomenal."
On any given day her characters take her traveling to the depths of the ocean, to having a picnic on the moon and it's manifesting these make-believe adventurous scenes that puts Jan in her happy place.