Experience: I can only paint in my sleep

I’ll use any tools I can find. At a friend’s, I used coal and chicken bones

When I was at school, I hated art. Growing up in north Wales, I was not able to scrape higher than an E in my final exams. I wasn’t too bothered; I thought I wasn’t going to pursue it as a career.

By the time I was about four, I started sleepwalking. At night, I used to go under the stairs and scribble on the wall. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, aged seven, to get checked out. The doctor was adamant that there was nothing to worry about, and advised my parents to “let him get on with it”.

When I was 15, I would still be getting up to make art in the middle of the night – even if I was staying over at a friend’s house. By this point, I was no longer just making scribbles. I was sketching anything from portraits of Marilyn Monroe to abstract noughts and crosses, and fairies.

I showed some to my art teachers. They said: “Why can’t you do this in class?” It was something I struggled to understand myself. I tried so hard to draw when I was awake, practising and using the same tools. But no matter what I did, I was unable to replicate the drawings.

Once I left school, I became a nurse and carer in hospices, mainly helping people with brain injuries. I also met my partner. We have been together for 23 years, and he was and still is incredibly supportive of my art and sleepwalking habits – he often films me as I work. Watching videos of me painting is very strange, as I have no recollection of it. I often wake up feeling as if I have done something in my sleep but I can never quite remember what. I paint with both hands, but awake I’m only right-handed.

I will leave my art supplies in my drawers and when I’m asleep I’ll know where to go. At a friend’s place, I drew on a plasterboard using chicken bones and coal left over from a barbecue we’d had in the garden. I’ll use any tools I can find, sometimes knives and forks. That’s the only thing that worries my partner – that I’ll accidentally hurt myself. But it hasn’t happened so far.

I have gone to various sleep clinics to try to get to the bottom of what’s happening. They’ve seen the videos and observed me as I slept. I’ve been wired up, had my heart rate monitored overnight and have been kept awake for 36 hours for experiments, but nothing out of the ordinary was found health-wise. Alcohol or sleep deprivation does bring the sleepwalking on more, though, so I am careful about that.

I have learned to embrace my unusual talent and set up my first art exhibition in 2007 at my local library to raise money for cancer research. I bought £1 frames, cut out my artwork and stuck them to the walls. Within a week, I had 160 calls from different media outlets and organisations wanting to hear about my art. I was over the moon. I then decided to leave my very fulfilling job in nursing and become a full-time artist.

People sometimes assume I’ll always paint a fully developed work of art in the night. In truth, my success ratio is more like one in 50. I’ve ruined stuff in my sleep before. Sometimes I will do random squiggles or lines, only to go back three months later and complete them. Now I’m actually selling my work as a career, there can be pressure to produce more.

Sometimes I go months without drawing or painting anything, and every now and then I’ll do something I’m proud of. I’ve had to learn to go with the flow, which helps make me relaxed enough to produce more work. I usually end up doing about 20 pieces a year. Kim Kardashian had two of my Marilyn Monroes in her Met Gala dressing room this year.

Some people have tried to link my abilities with childhood trauma, which doesn’t add up to me personally. Others have questioned whether I’m genuine. Neither worries me, as I don’t feel I have anything to prove and really enjoy what I do. I do feel a bit guilty that there are people who spend their whole lives studying art and then I come along and do it in my sleep. I’m lucky my subconscious has given me a career that makes me truly happy. My advice to my younger self? Do your art exam in your sleep.

• As told to Elizabeth McCafferty

Do you have an experience to share? Email experience@theguardian.com


Lee Hadwin

The GuardianTramp

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