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Painting herself out of a corner

·4 min read

Kirsten Neil has a love-hate relationship with the internet.

It’s the kind of toxic romance that began as just a little fling when she first started working for a living. Fairly quickly, it gained a life of its own — something she had no idea how to ever walk away from.

For more than a decade, Neil spent hours on end — chomping away at the bits of every single Tweet, Facebook post and Instagram story — as a social-media strategist with companies like the CBC. And before that, she was a coder, web developer and even a marketer, as early as Y2K.

All of that changed when the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to rethink everything last year.

As a hoard of early coronavirus cases arrived in Manitoba, Neil was told her year-to-year contract couldn’t be renewed again. And just like that, the kind of job she spent her whole life doing wasn’t there for her any longer.

"That’s when I thought very long and hard about where my life was going," she said, in an interview. "I realized I just wasn’t the same person anymore. My priorities had completely changed and I didn’t want to speak that HTML language anymore."

The 47-year-old is now a full-time watercolour artist who works on commission — selling beautiful line drawings, portraits and freestyle canvases anywhere from $45 to $150 or more, depending on the time she’s put into it.

While her pay might not be the same as her previous salaries or work-related benefits, she’s found peace and serenity in her new vocation.

"I wake up every day, paint what I want or what my clients have described, and honestly, I just find myself grateful and actually happy now," she said. "It’s the biggest blessing not being burnt out like I used to be anymore."

Neil is not the only one who’s made this kind of switch.

According to Statistics Canada, over three million Canadians were affected by job losses or reduced hours in March alone last year, when pandemic restrictions first began. In its monthly jobs report released on Friday, StatCan said the economy lost 207,000 jobs in April, as soaring COVID-19 cases led to further business closures and rising unemployment rates in the country.

Hidden within those losses, around 25 per cent of working people in Canada have started their careers over again with jobs that are completely unrelated to what they did before the pandemic, suggests national human resources agency Morneau Shepell in a recent study.

But Neil counts herself as one of the lucky ones, and not just because her work as an artist isn’t completely new to her. "It’s also because I’m privileged to have a partner who can be there to support me," she said.

"He’s an HR recruiter and he loves his job. And now, he loves it probably even more because he gets to be with me when he’s not working."

Neil never really went to school to learn how to be a marketer, coder or any of those web-related jobs she did — save for the one or two college courses she took in the late ’90s. "I learnt everything on the fly and just by doing it on the job," she said.

"It’s also why I get sort of confused about how to reply when people tell me I’m a great artist or ask where I got my style from, because I never went to school for this either. I just sort of learnt it on the go."

Her day-to-day hours vary greatly. The right balance, she says, is surprisingly still within that 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily grind.

"I tried working on the weekends early on when I started this," said Neil. "I just saw that it was way more gratifying and freeing not doing that though, because I spent so much of my life doing that otherwise — I was always working on weekends."

Some days are harder than others and Neil often finds herself putting up reminders not to be on the internet. "It’s hard when I still have to sell my art and promote it on all those apps or my website," she said.

"I still go back to that difficult place all the time because I still love the internet and yet, I hate it, too... Man, it’s such a cesspool."

Finding light during the pandemic, and the kind of relief the last year has brought her through art, isn’t something Neil ever expected.

"But you know what? It’s something I couldn’t be more fulfilled with," she said. "And now, when someone on LinkedIn asks me to interview for the kind of job I did before, I just say thanks, but no thanks — I’m so much happier where I am."

Twitter: @temurdur

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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