In Focus: Mary Courtney

Mary shares her journey with Outside In

"I loved to draw as a child -  I was one of those kids who was always drawing. Our dad brought big wadges of that stripy serrated computer paper back from the car factory for us. But the drawing stopped when I was a teenager, when other interests developed! And then somehow I felt inhibited about taking it up again, until about six years ago, when I just picked up some paint and had a go and then picked up a pen and had a go - and before I knew it, I was hooked.

It was illness that brought me to art - kept me still long enough to do it and shed those inhibitions that stop you from even having a go. I found that when I developed M.E. after a previously very active life, poems would mysteriously come to me, something that hadn’t happened  before. I came to rely on them as a brightness in a bleak time. But then I started to fear what would happen if they just stopped. So that was why I took up art, out of fear -  that I would not have a brightness in my day if the poems stopped.

Now there is no fear. I love to draw and the poems come along quite frequently and my life has been massively enriched by tapping into creativity I didn’t even know I had.

I like line drawings without tone, such as cartoons, cave paintings, children’s drawings, the line drawings on vases from Ancient Greece, diagrams of machines, old anatomy masters such as Vesalius, and medieval imagery such as the beasts from the Bestiary. I love the colour and shapes of Matisse and the strange clutter of images in Hieronymus Bosch and Picasso’s Guernica.

I didn’t have any aspirations when I started writing poems and drawing. Now I do.

I want to be able to make some kind of living (income) from art. I still have very limited amounts of energy that mean I can’t work in a regular job. But art is flexible and I am hopeful that there will be a way sometime soon that I can make this work.

My process when drawing might involve me just shutting my eyes and putting pen to paper and seeing what happens. Or it might be doing some fact finding about a chemical and then googling some images, having a sleep and seeing then what ideas emerge and then putting pen to paper. I like to draw straight to the page with a pen. It feels like life. You have to make the best of what happens. You can’t rub something out and pretend it never existed.

I first heard about Outside In through a hospital art group that was run by “Escape Community Arts," and ever since then, the project has been a massive help in getting me to think of myself as an artist. Without Outside In I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have work exhibited at Compton Verney and Tate Modern. I doubt if my art would have gotten far out of the house. And having these names on a CV then opens up other opportunities and allows other things to happen. A few days ago I put in my first ever application for a grant for art funding in an attempt to become a “working artist”. That would have been unthinkable even a year ago and would not have been possible without Outside In putting those practical steps in place, organising events to get your work photographed and curated exhibitions in well-known galleries.


I first had contact with Outside In at one of their Surgery Days about 3 years ago. I had this massive drawing, 'Drop of Make-Up', that I’d been working on for about 10 months. It looked impossible to photograph, but with the help of step ladders, plenty of space and imagination, it was. This was then selected for the Outside In exhibition at Compton Verney…to my great delight! This then opened other possibilities.

I enrolled on an art foundation course  - and though this took longer than usual, I did complete it, and this opened my mind to other ideas. I submitted my work for the Coventry Drawing Prize and have been invited to exhibit with Karen Johnson at the Lewis Gallery in Rugby (helped by the kudos of having had a drawing in a well-known gallery).

This summer I used the idea behind the big drawing at Compton Verney, to make a 'Mappa Earlsdon' - with the help of over 200 local people of all ages and from all walks of life - we created a  giant map of our area, populated not just by familiar streets, but with foxes, dragons and The Common Widdling Waddler! Members of the local community then clubbed in to get it framed so it could be housed in Earlsdon Library. An entirely unforeseen and lovely consequence that has also given me the impetus to try out big collaborative drawings again. I would never have been able to predict the chain of events that were triggered by that first contact with Outside In, and I probably wouldn’t have believed it at the time, but I’m very glad of it.

At the moment I am working on converting the chemical elements of the Periodic Table into characters. I have also approached The University of Warwick Chemistry Department about an Art-Chemistry project. They are keen and we have put in an application for funding. I won’t know till the end of December if this has been successful. But the way I’m looking at it, I’ve been over the biggest hurdle now, making an approach and making an application. Whatever happens I’ve got the confidence now to give making a living from art a go. I have a lot to thank Outside In for, for helping me to re-create my life."

Click here to visit Mary's Outside In gallery