Updated: Jan 3
By Polly Bates
Our editor Polly Bates spoke with artist, vlogger and founder of the initiative Youth Art Connect (YAC), Graham Cullis. Cullis recently curated the exhibition 'What Mental Health Means To Me' along with the co-directors of YAC, Marie Ralph and Siobhan Taylor. The exhibition was hosted by North Coast Asylum Gallery located in Newquay, Cornwall, UK between the 4th and 5th December, 2027. 'What Mental Health Means To Me' showcased personal expressions and experiences of mental health, with the intention to highlight the various assistance our younger generation requires.
Graham Cullis in front of their works within the 'What Mental Health Means To Me' Exhibition.
POLLY: From what I understand about your artistic practice, you started painting in 2020 to help you through a “mental breakdown”. Could you tell us how painting helped you through this time, and what urged you to pick up a paintbrush?
GRAHAM: So I actually took an art class after a first date with a beautiful Russian lady called Tatiana, who was running art classes here in Bali. She asked if I would like to join a workshop for beginners, and of course, I obliged. If I had said no, it would not have been the best move for a first date would it? However I actually really wanted to give it a go. I hadn’t picked up a paintbrush since high school and I remember I loved art class but didn’t pursue it. I went down the music path instead on the journey to try to become a rock star.
On the day of the class, I chose to paint a waterfall and was impressed with what I produced. I was urged by Tatiana to buy my own supplies and practice oil painting. Shortly after this discovery, I went through a tough time mentally due to many factors. One being the changing world from the introduction to Covid-19, and all the pressures that came with it. So, I took a sabbatical from my job and made plans to come home to the UK. During the sabbatical, I painted every day.
I found painting helped me lose time, where minutes in a depressive state can feel like hours. It gave me a meditative space to introspect and make great life-changing decisions. It also unlocked me creatively in all different types of ways. I found I reconnected with my love for music and began to edit and produce content, which is now in the form of my YouTube Vlog.
Graham Cullis 'Whale Calf', 2021.
POLLY: Since then, you have been involved in a few projects and events that promote the mental health benefits of creating art. One of these being the free art therapy youth club you founded in 2021, Youth Art Connect, hosted in Cornwall, UK. How important is it for you to share your experiences with art and wellness with your local community, and what does the group get up to in a typical session?
GRAHAM: Youth Art Connect, which is now a CIC (community interest company), was such an amazing journey. Part of my YouTube content is to promote mental health and to collaborate with people in the mental health space, whether that be promoting their message or running projects myself.
After quitting my 9-5 job to commit to this, I eventually headed back to my spirit home Newquay in Cornwall and collaborated with a therapist called Kate Evans, who had been following my journey. Kate reached out and said she had some studio space she could offer for a project, and Youth Art Connect was born, which introduces the therapeutic benefits of art to young people aged 11-30.
We run workshops with expert practitioners and free-flow art sessions. Those attending can expect a safe, non-judgmental environment to create, try new mediums and connect with other like-minded individuals. We have all walks of life attending and across the spectrum, so expect a lot of young people with superpowers. The dynamic is electric, and in a time when social anxiety is at an all-time high, we have seen countless breakthroughs and unearthed many talents that had been buried.
I absolutely love community projects, and over this last year and a half especially, I have realised how important community is for everyone. I believe community is also the backbone for any business you want to start, and if you have a group of people that are passionate about your mission statement, then you are only going to grow.
POLLY: Youth Art Connect recently curated the ‘Mental Health Awareness Art Exhibition’ at North Coast Asylum Gallery, Newquay in December 2021. How many artworks and artists were involved? Was there a selection process, or did everyone in Youth Art Connect get the opportunity to exhibit their work?
GRAHAM: We had no selection process; everyone had an opportunity. We just asked the young artists and volunteers to express “what mental health means to me”. This was a social challenge in itself as we did not want to restrain anyone’s creativity, but we also had to consider safeguarding and communicating effectively with the youngsters and their parents about what they were about to take part in. As you can imagine, this subject is extremely personal, and we needed to explain that they would be publicly showing their experiences to the world. I was so very impressed with everyone’s work. It was amazing and thought-provoking to say the least, and highlighted to the local community how incredibly important it is to consider the mental health of our younger generations.
I can’t remember the exact number, but I think it was around 35 artworks. The young artists were all on fire that night, they had an amazing experience. One girl came up to me at our after-party and said this was the happiest she has felt in her life. Needless to say; my tear ducts were trembling.
For me, the whole experience made me realise that what I am doing is powerful and comes with great responsibility.
POLLY: Your journey has clearly built quite the following, with over 10,000 followers on Instagram and 1,000 subscribers to your vlog on YouTube. How have these tools helped you to spread your message, and what advice would you give to our readers about creating content and promoting their works?
GRAHAM: Ugghh, Instagram. Yes, I have a fair few followers, however, I have learnt not to focus on the numbers and the routine of what the algorithm demands of us, even if that means I lose my engagement. My engagement sucks right now and I’m not ashamed to admit it. What you’ve got to remember is to focus on the few people that are engaged, as that is the basis of your community.
Social platforms are a double-edged sword. One sucks the life out of our creativity through endless scrolling, but the other can feed it if you manage it responsibly. YouTube is hard work and I still have a long way to go until I am monetised on the platform. I still have 3,000 watch time hours to complete, which is no easy task.
My advice is to stay consistent but only for the love of what you do, and trust in the process. More importantly, create community and engage with the people that are already engaged. Don’t be afraid to ask them for support or to invest in your products. Direct messages can make us feel uncomfortable, but if you don’t ask you don’t get. This is how I am now almost sustained by my Karma Card Project on Patreon (www.patreon.com/grahamcullisart), by asking people. You will be surprised by what happens when you give someone a call to action.
POLLY: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your practice with us. We would like to finish off with one last question - if you could offer one piece of advice to our creative community, what would it be?
GRAHAM: Show up for people and make them feel heard.