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Farewell to fear

Writing and illustrating her voyage through “crippling depression and fear” was an act of bravery for Janet Atkinson: One she hopes will normalise mental distress – and seeking help – for her readers.

The Greytown artist and newly self-published author launched her first book, Wayfarerrespectively designed and printed by Gregory Studio and Lamb-Peters Print – at Heart of Arts on April 14.

Wayfarer, named for the traditional American folk tune “The Wayfaring Stranger”, chronicles Atkinson’s mental health journey: Battling depression and severe anxiety, reaching out for professional help, and eventually “coming out of the tunnel stronger, happier and more resilient”.

The book is illustrated by 18 paintings Atkinson has completed over the decades, which shift in tone as the author’s state of mind improves. Her works, commonly featuring animal motifs, progress from nightmarish, to surreal, to whimsical.

Atkinson said she has experienced depression and anxiety since the age of 17 – and felt she turned a corner after finding a supportive therapist, who helped her “rearrange [her] thinking”.

Working on Wayfarer required her to be brave: Not only writing a book for the first time, but admitting her mental health struggles – “something which still has personal and social stigma attached” – to the world.

“If you ask a room full of people to put their hands up if they’ve had covid, most people would. If you asked if they’ve been through mental pain and suffering, they’d be more hesitant,” she said.

“For a lot of people, it’s still hard to admit, even to friends, that they’ve been a mental wreck and have been struggling to pull themselves off the bathroom floor.

“Mental health is something we need to talk more about. In the book, I wanted to capture my journey as a normal part of the human experience. Being human is hard – it takes a lot of courage.

“I hope even one person will read the book and realise it’s normal to go through hard times – and it’s a good thing to ask for help.”

Atkinson grew up in a creative family and is the descendant of “three generations of watercolour artists”: Her father, grandfather, and great-great-aunt.

She has been painting and exhibiting works since the early 2000s, mostly working with acrylics and dabbling with oil pastels and watercolours.

Atkinson, who has written several short stories, began work on Wayfarer two years ago, following a suggestion from her daughter, a self-taught book publisher.

“Rosalind asked if I’d ever considered putting a book together about my life story. I said, ‘okay, I’ll give it a go’.

“The process was harder than I thought – coming up with a narrative that flowed well, making sure the paintings followed the shape of the narrative, getting the message across without too many words.

“It took a while to get it to a standard I was happy with.”

In Wayfarer, Atkinson’s illustrations often feature fantastical creatures in “real world settings”, such as bear-like animals in row boats or lion/eagle hybrids attempting to cross a bridge.

The more sinister forms are manifestations of her mental distress, the real-world backgrounds representing their intrusion on her regular life.

“I used to have a lot of these creatures in my imagination. They’d look like bears, wolves, kangaroos. Sometimes, they’d have human features, and look like skinny bird-people.

“They weren’t at all friendly. But I’d have a compulsion to paint them.”

In the book’s latter half, the creatures became more charmingly offbeat – such as a “flock” of flying stingrays or jellyfish released into the air like lanterns.

“Now I’m doing well, the unfriendly ones don’t visit me anymore.”

    Wayfarer is available at Heart of Arts in Carterton for $30. To pre-order a copy, email Janet Atkinson at [email protected]

Greytown author/illustrator Janet Atkinson. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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