The artistic journey to recovery

Last updated 10:15 21/12/2012
Bonita-Lynn Parker
NICOLE GOURLEY/Fairfax NZ
EYE-CATCHING: Invercargill artist Bonita-Lynn Parker with her first portrait, of an African woman, drawn from a photograph taken by her sister.

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Bonita-Lynn Parker won Most Original at the Provincial Pride Awards at the City Gallery in Invercargill this month. Gwyneth Hyndman speaks to the artist in her family's home about the role of sculpture and painting while recovering from a debilitating eating disorder. 

Bonita-Lynn Parker has always seen art as an escape.

But it has been only recently that the 28-year-old has seen her art become a visual escape for others as well.

"To me this offers hope - this is something I can be proud of," she says as she gives a tour of her family's house where her sketches, paintings and sculptures can be found on nearly every wall and table. They illustrate places and situations - the aftermath of a street soccer game; Aids orphans smiling for the camera - in parts of the world Parker has lived in, or visited briefly and been fascinated by some aspect of the culture there. Some are based on photographs emailed to her by family who were travelling. It wasn't until recently that Parker allowed her parents to take her detailed work out of the manila folder and boxes they were stored in and put them on display.

"It's been such a long journey to get to this point."

The journey Parker speaks of is a near-10 year battle with anorexia, which nearly cost her her life. At one point she was so frail - weighing less than 30 kilograms - she barely had the strength to hold a paintbrush. Sculpting - another outlet for her art - was also impossible because of her lack of energy.

With her body in survival mode, painting became a pastime that was nearly forgotten as a team of doctors, family and close friends rallied around Parker to stabilise her weight.

Now in what she refers to as her "safe zone" she can look back on the last decade as incredibly difficult, but not the end of the story.

"I'm not a victim, I'm a survivor."

Parker came to New Zealand from Africa with her family when she was 14. Before the move she remembered always having a simple enjoyment of art, creating pictures from Disney cartoons on the television before the move from Port Elizabeth, South Africa to Christchurch.

Later she would paint with oils and took up charcoal to portray the people in the landscapes around her in the places in Africa her family had lived. Parker was also inspired by the photographs taken by her two sisters who have continued to supply her with images of their travels abroad.

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As a teenager coming into a foreign New Zealand culture, Parker had difficulty adjusting, and began rapidly losing weight. Art took a backseat as a fight began to keep her health from deteriorating.

"With eating disorders there is so much shame; you are so embarrassed," she says, describing the mindset behind the disorder - for many, weight is the one part of their life they feel they have control over.

"Eating disorders are largely about control. It was never about vanity - it was about wanting to hide. My weight was so low I couldn't get out of bed; they had put a feeding tube in. I didn't have the strength to move the blankets. I remember thinking ‘this is your existence'.

"But that wasn't living for me."

That moment was the turnaround point, she remembers.

While her body was in recovery in the past two years, she looked for a form of therapy that would allow her to work out the underlying reasons the disorder.

By the time Parker and her family moved to Invercargill, she was desperate to try a form of therapy that would work. At Southland Hospital, it was suggested that she try art therapy.

Parker - who hadn't pursued art for years - remembers her reaction was one of resignation: "let's give it a go".

To her surprise, expressing her fears through art was easier on a canvas.

Initially, she says she avoided all dark colours - "black was scary; it was death" - but it was indicative of thoughts and emotions that needed to be probed.

"I drew such basic things in the beginning. I was irritable, stubborn . . ."

She soldiered on. At some point, things began to change.

"It was brilliant. It revealed things about myself I had kept hidden

As her strength returned, her confidence grew. She was asked to display at City Gallery in Invercargill - it was the first time her art had ever been framed.

The feedback was not something she had anticipated.

"When it was announced I had won "Most Original" [at the Provincial Pride Awards] I just about passed out," she says. "I was shocked. I'm still buzzing."

Weekly doctor visits continue for Parker, who at 43kg, still has to have her weight, pulse and blood pressure monitored closely for the risk of seizures. Her body is in recovery, and overall healing is happening, she says.

"I don't know what's going to happen next. But for now I'm actually really happy - I can't remember being this happy." gwyneth.hyndman@stl.co.nz

- The Southland Times

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