Since our charity began, we have met some amazing people. It’s as if being on a path – the right path – brings the people to you naturally. We call it ‘collecting people’. You know you’ll be doing something with them; you just may not have worked out what that ‘something’ is, yet.

Then once in a while, you happen across someone so talented, so lovely, and so obviously aligned with what it is that you stand for and are striving toward that you just have to ask them to be involved in some way shape or form – and right now, please! Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for the new PoetsIN Patron – the absolutely magnificent Sarah Graham.

Sarah’s brutal honesty, her creativity, her humour and her keenness to spread the word and strip back the stigma surround mental illness is what led us to having no choice but to onboard her. Read on to find out all about her, her art and her mental health hourney:

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Sarah Graham, I’m 43, and I’m a photorealist artist working in oil on canvas, I am well known for painting colourful close-ups of toys and sweets, joyful subjects basically, in such a way as to engage everyone’s inner child. I am studied in schools home and abroad, and have even featured on the GCSE art exam paper twice! This year marks my 20th year of doing it for a living, so I think you would have to say I’m doing something right!

Sarah Graham – Patron for The Creative Mental Health Charity PoetsIN

When did you first discover you were creative?

In nursery school age 2 and a half! All the teachers were so impressed with my artwork, in fact I have memories of that time, in particular of them praising me for my painting of a house!

What led you to doing it as a career?

A combination of mistakes, a strong will, and good fortune! I was all set to study psychology at uni, this was encouraged by all my teachers at school.  It was my dear dad who passed away in 2004 who would say ‘follow your heart dear’, sadly he didn’t get to see me make a success of it, but he at least knew I was on the right path. So, I did my art foundation course after my A levels, but my university application was for a psychology degree. By the end of the foundation, I knew I’d made a huge mistake, confirmed when the principle of the college came to see me in my workspace to tell me so! 

So, I withdrew from my place at Birmingham university (via a fax!), and through clearing got onto a BA in Fine Art at De Montfort University in Leicester. By the final year I had set up a gallery above the pub I worked in part time, & I was organising exhibitions and that’s where I began to sell work.  However, I moved to Reading after university, and initially got a job in a shop.  One day I took some of my degree work to the Jelly gallery on the off chance they’d exhibit it, it was literally going there or a skip, they hung one of my beach-scapes I’d produced while at uni and it sold straight away for £1000. They hung another in its place and that sold too.  With the gallery offering me a part time job and helping find a studio for me, I became self-employed in September 2001.

Sweet Dreams by Sarah Graham

Tell us about your mental health journey.

It began at a very young age; I was 5, my sister just 3, when my dad had his first episode of mania in our lifetime.  My childhood & formative years would come to be defined by my dad’s episodes, always mania, hospitalisation, usually being sectioned and then a depression.  Every time utterly heart-breaking, confusing, terrifying, to see such a placid, kind-hearted, and intelligent man turn into a someone unrecognisable.  Dad’s bipolar would manifest as delusions, often believing he was Jesus or the devil, obscene money spending, anger, although I have to say he was never violent towards us.  I could always see my dad if I stared deep into his eyes and saw through this changed exterior, and would beg him to come back, and luckily, he did, and every time we just picked up where we’d left off and carry on as a family, almost as if nothing had happened.  It was treated as our family secret, something which I rebelled against and reached out to people such as teachers, I felt no shame, and felt it was important to be open, something that I’ve taken with me into my own experiences.  Dad passed away from a very aggressive leukaemia in 2004, aged 74, I was 26. He was my best friend & I adored him and admired him for his courage he had shown over the years, he always worked and provided for his family despite his setbacks, he was my hero.

My bipolar started in 2005, however there had been a few wobbles in early adulthood, especially around my 18th birthday as this was when my dad’s started, and after a doctor told me age 12 it was hereditary, it became a fear deep within me that I would suffer too one day.  I unravelled very quickly in September of that year, having lost dad the previous year, which was followed soon after by a long-term relationship ending in quite dramatic fashion. I think the grief & loss caught up with me, and I recall my head literally imploded one day. Unbelievably I didn’t believe I was mentally ill, so any help I was offered felt like an attack & conspiracy, however I’d stopped eating and sleeping, I would literally snatch an hour a night, so my cognition became severely impaired.  I was paranoid and extremely frightened, and the anxiety was off the scale. In November I couldn’t see a way out of this nightmare and took an overdose, for which I was hospitalised on a voluntary basis, the reality was I had no choice as I was in hospital and taken to the mental health ward by wheelchair once I’d recovered from the physical damage I had done.  I remember coming to the next day after I’d taken the overdose, I had a catheter, was hooked up to a drip, and my first thought was abject horror that I was still alive.

I was in hospital for a month, recovery was slow thereafter, it wasn’t really until 2007 that I was fully back to myself.  It took a long time to accept what had happened to me. I had a boyfriend Ben, who miraculously stuck by me, we’d been together a matter of months when it happened, and he later became my husband.

I coped by telling myself the breakdown was a one off, however in 2009, a few months after I got married, a depression set in, and the next few years saw me cycle between periods of wellness and extreme lows.  My diagnosis during this time was major depressive disorder, however as the years went by, bipolar got mentioned and in 2015 I was diagnosed with bipolar type 2, moderate highs, and serious lows.  Later that year would see me take my second overdose, for which I was extremely lucky to survive.  I also tried to hang myself on several occasions throughout my episodes.  When you are that unwell, with total hopelessness and constant emotional pain you feel a burden on everyone around you and genuinely believe people would be better off without you. Suicide is a dangerous symptom of depression; it can feel like your only option as living is just so unbearable.  It’s difficult to express the way depression hijacks your brain and distorts all your beliefs, which is the main reason I put out the video of me during an episode, so people could ‘see’ my depression in the hope it might shed light on why I did what I did.

This may all seem awful, but there was worse to come when in 2017 I had my first full blown mania.  The only thing I can liken it to is taking a wrecking ball to my life and smashing it to pieces. You don’t hear so many stories of mania as you do depression, it’s basically the opposite; you are euphoric, delusional, feel invincible, have grandiose ideas, and the terrifying word which has so many negative connotations, psychotic.  One trait which I had during both depression and mania is paranoia, I believed people were trying to kill me, I can’t tell you how scared I was. The mania lasted 3 months, during which time I did a lot of things I would later deeply regret, I spent money as if I were a millionaire, thought I was a spy for MI5, thought I was psychic, believed it was my mission to save planet earth from aliens, the list of outrageous beliefs goes on. Things reached a head when I had a very public meltdown, and several people called the police.  It was early morning on the 1st of September, I thought I was meeting with the Queen and Prince Phillip for uncovering a terror plot, instead I was sectioned and spent the next month in hospital.  Once there, despite a lot of medication I remained in a manic state, believing the hospital was an academy for people with superpowers.  I know it sounds amusing, and there are things about it I now look back and laugh about, but the reality was I was very broken, and it would take several years to recover. My marriage fell apart, I lost friends, and I went into a depression which would last an entire year.  I had to rebuild my life, it was a very slow process, and one I could not have done without my friends and family, and the brilliant mental health team who still support me today.

I have been stable now for over 2 years, my longest spell ever, a result I believe of being on the right combination of medication, along with giving up alcohol, exercising, eating well, and great support from friends and my boyfriend who coincidentally I met 2 years ago. Many would say he’s been the biggest factor; he disputes this and is certain I’ve achieved recovery & balance by my own doing. 

Kill Bill by Sarah Graham

So, has having a creative outlet helped with your mental health at all?

My painting has helped in that it’s remained a constant through all my ups and downs; it’s always been there for me to go back to.  When unwell I can’t work at all, I’m barely functional so producing a highly realist oil painting is impossible, even putting a pencil to paper and drawing anything is too difficult.

Your artwork is incredible! Do you have a favourite painting and why?

Thank you! Am I allowed 2 favourites?!  ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ painted in 2009 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Wizard of Oz, for an exhibition in Harrods was a pivotal piece.  It was my favourite film growing up, and so it really came from the heart.  I want my work to reconnect people with their childhood self, this painting did just that for me, without sounding too dramatic it speaks to the core of my soul.

The second was the commission to paint an album cover for the British band Kaiser Chiefs in 2012 entitled ‘Kaisers Rock!’. The lead singer, Ricky Wilson, had seen my work at a gallery in Leeds several years before, he got in touch and we became friends, and when he had the idea to have a stick of rock with the band’s name and album title ‘Souvenir’ running through it, he asked if I would paint it. I had dreamt of doing album artwork since university when I fell in love with Julien Opie’s cover for Blur, so this piece was my dream come true.

If you had to choose just one painting of yours to be remembered by, which one would it be?

Probably Somewhere Over the Rainbow, it’s one of the few pieces I hang at home (a print as the original sold for £11k!) and for me it encompasses everything my work is about in one image, hope, joy, wonder and unashamed colour.

Somewhere Over The Rainbow – Sarah’s favourite piece

How do you start a painting – what inspires you and how do you start?

I have ideas all the time, I can’t keep up with them!  So many have been bubbling away for years before I get a chance to make them a reality.  And of course, much of my work is commission based so the ideas will come from clients, always within the realm of sweets and toys, although I did recently paint a film still from Kill Bill which was a lot of fun to do as it was so different.

I always have a vision in mind, and then the challenging bit is realising that in a photograph.  I have a mini photography studio within my studio where all my work starts out.  It’s full of sweets and toys and a cardboard cut-out of Rambo!  Once I capture the right image, I print it out, there is no computer alteration apart from cropping, and then I sketch it out in yellow acrylic paint, scaling up by eye (my work is usually quite big, so this is the hardest bit).  Then what follows if a full colour acrylic underpainting, which acts as a map for the final oil painting, and means I can reference the photo less, and allow the oil painting take on a life of its own and become much more than the initial photo can possibly achieve.

It wouldn’t be us if we didn’t ask if you write as a creative outlet as well.

The only time I have ever written (not including childhood when I wrote a lot) was during my mania when I was in hospital.  There I wrote poetry, and it just poured out of me, two of which PoetsIN were kind enough to publish in one of your books ‘Stop the Stigma II’.  My goal in life is to write a book about all my experiences with bipolar in the hope it will inspire and help others, but for now all my days are spent painting, but I hope one day to find the time.

You recently shared a video of you in a very dark place. Can you take us through that and why you shared it?

Well as I’ve already mentioned it was to try to help shed light on what it looks like to be in such a desperate place, in the hope it might help others going through it, as well as anyone trying to support someone suffering.  The video was filmed by my then husband in the hope it would go some way in helping me understand my condition when I was well.  The response it has had has been phenomenal, so much gratitude, I hope in sharing it here with you it will continue to help others know that no matter how unwell you are you CAN and WILL recover and it’s possible to lead a full and healthy life.

Fab! by Sarah Graham

Kudos to you. What message would you give to anyone that might be struggling?

It’s always very simple, that IT WILL PASS.  Stephen Fry famously likens mental illness to the weather, that analogy is very powerful and has always helped me.  Just like storm clouds come and go, so too will episodes of mental distress, the sun will shine again, and you will experience joy and contentment.

You’re going to be a Patron for PoetsIN – why do you want to do that?

Well, I have a lifetime of experience with mental illness, I’ve been on the inside and outside so to speak, so my understanding and desire to help others is very deep. If being involved with PoetsIN provides me a platform to build on this, I will be truly thankful.  I want to share what I’ve been through, being open is the only way to end the stigma.  Being fairly well known now as an artist, I feel I do have a voice, and opportunities like this one are invaluable.

We’re so pleased you’re joining our journey. What is it you love about PoetsIN?

It’s The Creative Mental Health Charity, PoetsIN – it’s perfect! The fact you use creative mental health programmes to help those struggling is just brilliant. Mental illness is as unique to individuals as personality is, and PoetsIN embraces that uniqueness and tailors help and support to meet it.  It’s inclusive and feels like a safe community, and I am thrilled to have been invited to be a part of it.

What is your favourite book and why?

I think it must be Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, it is a beautiful book with a clear message, and one obviously I could relate to. It was the first time reading something where I really felt I wasn’t alone, mental illness is cruel in that it makes you believe you are so alone, even though 1 in 4 people now suffer.  It’s real, and truthful, with so many helpful ideas, it really is a must read for anyone suffering or anyone trying to support someone suffering.

Sarah’s favourite book

Who would you most like to collaborate with?

I want to paint an album cover for Rufus Wainwright, he is my musical hero, and I would love to do something wonderful with his input and ideas.  Does that count as a collaboration??!

We all have moments where we truly connect with words we read. What quote inspires you the most. Why?

Carpe Diem, (seize the day) I know it’s a cliché, but for me it’s very personal as my dad used to try to teach me Latin, and was always using Latin words and phrases!  This is about the only one that stuck, but it is so important.  Even if you only manage a 10-minute walk that day as you are in the depths of mental anguish, that is still a valid attempt at doing exactly this.

Writer’s block/painter’s block, is it real or a myth?

Oh, it’s real!  Although I don’t have it for long periods (discounting when I’ve been unwell), some days the creative juices just don’t flow, so I busy myself with other things, and being self-employed there is always the joys of admin to turn to!

What is your favourite word?


Finish this sentence – Creativity is the epitome of…..

sharing your soul with the world.

The news covering when Sarah painted The Kaiser Chief’s album cover

What’s next for Sarah Graham?

Some very exciting things, one of which I can’t say too much about yet apart from that it’s my first experience of television!

I have several upcoming exhibitions, all of which can be found on my website.  And ideas for paintings that I can’t wait to get started on! 

And as it’s my 20th year this year of being a full-time artist, I’m also putting a book together of all my work, and there will be a Kickstarter campaign to fund it which I’m looking forward to getting up and running.

We’re superchuffed that Sarah will be spreading the word alongside us. A thousand thanks to her and for her candour when talking about her mental illness. Awkward and uncomfortable conversations are the only way to strip back the stigma surrounding mental health – and the more we speak up, the less awkward and uncomfortable they become. Here’s to much more of it! If you wanted to find out more about Sarah and her work, please check out these links:


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