Fresh A.I.R Gallery hosts a virtual show by the self-taught artist, who uses household items to create beautiful paintings that help her cope with chronic pain and mental illness

At one of her lowest points, when Marianne Philip was living out of her car in the dead of winter several years ago, she began driving to places that reminded her of better times, like Mohican State Park, where she used to celebrate Christmas with her family.

When she got to these nostalgic places, she’d take photos, and in 2013, when Philip moved into a townhome, she hung the photos all over her walls. “It reminded me that there's some beauty behind it all,” she said. “There’s a reason behind things that you can't see at the time.”

The photos inspired Philip to start painting, following in the footsteps of her artist grandmother. As she began painting from the photographs, Philip would sometimes post the images on social media, and the positive feedback from her friends, along with encouragement from her ailing father, provided the motivation to continue pursuing this newfound passion.

Philip’s father died in 2016, the tragic culmination of about a dozen years of intense struggle for Philip, including an on-the-job injury that led to an opioid addiction, the death of her mother, chronic pain, depression, a brief stint in a psychiatric hospital and ongoing battles over medication with doctors and Medicaid.

Philip found that painting helped her deal with the emotional fallout from those events while also giving her a creative outlet to deal with her chronic pain and depression. Along the way, she connected with Fresh A.I.R. Gallery, a project of Southeast Healthcare that exhibits the work of artists affected by mental illness and/or substance use disorders. The gallery is currently hosting a virtual exhibit of Philip’s work, “Traveling Through Time.”

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Philip is self-taught, and rather than using traditional paints and brushes, the artist repurposes common household items and purchases from the local dollar store. She started out using Rust-Oleum, then switched to a combination of nail polish and makeup (often donated by supportive friends), along with molding clay, crayons and glue sticks, which she melts and manipulates with wood-burning tools and other heating elements, combining it all with her hands.

Often, Philip applies her self-made paints to foam board, wood and glass, a surface that creates a welcome, unexpected element when heated. Then the layering process begins. “Painting over something is [a way of saying] that things are improving or changing in my life. Every painting is a story,” she said.

Philip’s earlier work focuses on floral designs that range from impressionist to abstract; her later pieces shift to textured depictions of ballet dancers and musicians — a change that came about after her father’s death. “My father's hospice nurses said, ‘Look at your paintings before, during and after, and it'll tell a story,’” said Philip, noting that her father loved classical music and inspired the thematic transition.

Philip still struggles with PTSD from her father’s death. The flashbacks, combined with chronic pain, tend to keep her up at night, so Philip fills the time painting, sometimes spending 10 hours straight in the studio. Over time, she has gradually been able to internally apply a label to herself that for so long gave her a sense of imposter syndrome.

“Saying to myself, ‘I'm an artist’ — that was the hardest thing to do, because I didn't see what other people saw in my art,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Fresh A.I.R. Gallery, I don’t know where I would be. … This art is my passion. It's a lifeline.”