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Interview with Liz Atkin – Havelock Walk Artist

Liz Atkin is an internationally acclaimed visual artist and advocate based in London, whose life has been dominated by her compulsive skin picking -or Dermatillomania -for more than 20 years. Liz channels her compulsions using art – by re-imagining the body-focused repetitive behaviour of skin picking into photographic-artworks, charcoal drawings, and performances.

Recently honoured for her outspoken advocacy at the TLC Foundation Conference for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviours in San Francisco, Liz is based in the lively creative community that is Havelock Walk in Forest Hill and will be exhibiting at AOH.

What is Compulsive Skin Picking (CSP)?

CSP is a complex physical and mental disorder. Picking at skin is a very normal grooming human behaviour, but CSP is categorised by the repetitive picking at skin to the extent that significant damage is caused and it impacts on a person’s daily functioning. It’s not known why humans develop this disorder. There is currently no cure, but a lot of important research into Skin Picking and Hair Pulling disorders is currently happening in the US.

Tell me how you discovered art could be used as a coping method.

I suffered in silence for a very long time, probably 20 years or more, hiding the behaviour every day. I had no idea it was a disorder. I was 29 when I first had the courage to Google it.

I masked and covered the illness from those closest to me, wearing clothes that concealed the parts of my body covered in scabs and scars, and using make-up to mask it on my face. The guilt, shame, embarrassment and anxiety was terrible. Eventually I had no choice really but to try and help myself because it was destroying me. So what do you do with a disorder that is both a conscious urge and an unconscious behaviour? That’s where my journey with art began.

I studied for an MA in Dance. I began exploring and studying my disorder, I’d never had therapy at that point, so a class exercise looking at everyday movement patterns as choreography led me to look at the body-focused repetitive behaviour of my skin picking. Over the course of two years I slowly began to make photographic artworks directly about how it felt to live with this disorder. I’ve been working with textural materials like latex, clay, acrylic paint to transform the skin over the last 10 years. It has helped me recover and learn to come to terms with the illness.

More recently, drawing has become one of the best ways of all to channel the disorder and transform it.

An example of this is what you call compulsive charcoal—you make charcoal drawings to occupy your hands. How did it come about?

I had CBT therapy during an episode of Severe Depression and Chronic Anxiety in 2014 with nearly a year off work. My Skin Picking had returned very badly. It was during this time my #CompulsiveCharcoal began by accident. A friend gave me a box of charcoal sticks as a present and to stave off panic attacks and keep me focused during long commutes on the London Underground, I started drawing in sketchbooks. I noticed how relaxed and focused it helped me to be. It was during one of those trips, I ran out of pages, so I picked up and graffitied a discarded copy of the Metro. It’s a kind of graffiti recycling; drawing onto adverts or images in the newspapers and upcycling them.

Now, it’s a thing I do on newspapers, wherever I am in the world. I draw on planes, trains and buses. This isn’t just some kind of art project for the sake of it. Whenever I am sedentary, skin picking is something my hands will do automatically so to stop that from happening, I draw. Someone told me recently the drawings I create even look very itchy, which seemed like a very appropriate way to describe them! They are very quick, each one takes just one minute, the speed and energy of the mark-making is absolutely akin to the skin picking. It helps me refocus my hands and fingers, be really present in the moment and transform the urge of skin picking into a different repetitive action. Since I don’t really need the drawings (I just need to do them), I began handing them to curious passengers.

You’ve combined your art with spreading awareness of body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs), but your advocacy isn’t limited to your artwork. What else have you done to draw more attention to these often misunderstood disorders?

Much of this has been a happy accident. I didn’t train as an artist, I certainly had no idea how transformative art was going to be in my life. Much of it has evolved organically through the act of doing it. Because of the transformative experiences I have had with art, it is now a fully connected part of my life. I teach art and drama to all ages. I work in hospitals, hospices, prisons, universities and schools, approaching creativity as a hugely important tool to help others. Art is my greatest tool for recovery.

What do you like about Artists’ Open House at the Dulwich Festival?

I’m one of the artists based on Havelock Walk in Forest Hill, and Dulwich Festival brings a huge number of visitors to our street over the two weekends in May. Havelock Walk is a cobbled mews which was badly bombed during the Second World War, and by the 1980s Havelock Walk was partly derelict, most of the buildings were industrial storage space. Sculptor Jeff Lowe recognised its potential and moved in, buying up several properties that he then sold on to other artists, creating a street of live/work spaces. Today, Havelock Walk is designated as an official conservation area by Lewisham Council. About 30 artists are living and working here, painters, sculptors, photographers, print makers, designers and more. There is always a lot of preparation for the May weekends and they are probably our busiest. We also open for our Winter Weekend in November each year. I like how Open Studios connects us to the community and provides the chance for visitors spend time here, encountering a range of work, chatting to artists and finding out about different processes and creations. Obviously it’s also a chance for people to buy or commission unique artwork directly from us too!

Liz will be exhibiting at Havelock Walk Studios in Forest Hill during the AOH weekends. There will be live music and street food.

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