From Ailments to Artwork

Sketch artist Corrina Thurston finds her way out of the darkness of disease by creating colored-pencil portraits of wildlife.

At age 18, Corrina Thurston was nearly bedridden. She couldn’t sleep more than 20 minutes per night. She had chronic migraines, a severe sore throat, hallucinations, intermittent fever, and infections. A bout of sinusitis caused her eye to bulge. “It was just really weird, horrible things that started happening,” she says.

A freshman studying biology and anthropology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, Thurston had to withdraw for medical reasons and move back to her parents’ home in Barre, Vermont. It took six years for a doctor to diagnose Lyme disease and a couple of other disorders that Thurston now can trace to the tick that bit her during a hike for her high school biology class in spring 2008.

In 2010, before that diagnosis, Thurston felt helpless. Once an avid athlete who played basketball, tennis, and field hockey, and ran five miles a day, she could no longer even read or watch TV because of the headaches. One day, for reasons she cannot explain, she picked up a No. 2 pencil and started sketching a female nude.

The picture wasn’t bad. And even though she could spend only short bouts of time at it, drawing kept her active. “And it finally gave me something to look forward to the next day,” she says.

Blue-Eyed Kitten, colored pencil, 8×10 inches

Other than the occasional visit to a gallery or museum, Thurston never had much interest in art. She had once seen a colored-pencil drawing and liked the vibrancy of it. So she bought herself a pack of colored pencils and enhanced the nude in purple and orange.

Next, she thought she’d try animals, which she loves. In a magazine, she found a picture of a parrot and drew it. Eventually, she got permission from photographers to recreate their portraits of real wildlife in colored-pencil form.

Hermit Crab, colored pencil, 8×10 inches

Some of her work, which New Moon Café in Burlington recently exhibited, look amazingly photo-like. A bright-green tree frog with striking round red eyes clings to a branch in one drawing. Another captures the dynamic movement of a kingfisher exploding from the water with a fish in its beak, while each white droplet sparkles against the blue backdrop.

“I literally didn’t call myself an artist until, like, three years ago,” Thurston says. “I had come to the conclusion and was O.K. with the fact that my path in life had changed.” Island Arts, a gallery in North Hero, Vermont, features a solo show of Thurston’s work throughout November. She also speaks and wrote a book about how to build a successful art business.

Corinna Thurston, Black Rhino, graphite and colored pencil

Black Rhino, graphite and colored pencil, 24×32 inches

Thurston recently started a new collection of endangered species—including an elephant and a black rhino—sketched in black against a stark white background. The elephant is drawn face forward, with each detailed crevasse of its trunk visible, as if it’s charging head-on toward the viewer. “Part of the reason I did the white background is their habitats are going away,” says Thurston, who plans to send some proceeds from sales of those pieces to the conservation organization devoted to each particular animal. She also has branched into drawing on furniture. A large green luna moth casts its shadow onto a wooden stool seat, as though it’s hovering over it.

Thurston now takes about 45 medications and tinctures each day to treat her diseases but credits most of her improvement to the psychological boost of drawing. With her animal subjects, the artist can embrace and reclaim the natural world that has caused her so much discomfort.

Corrina Thurston–sketch artist
Barre, Vermont
Top image: Common loon (cropped), 11×14 inches. All photos courtesy of Corrina Thurston
Janet ReynoldsFrom Ailments to Artwork

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