Mari Andrew: The Artist Who Turned Her Break-Up Into a Thriving Career

woman with dark hair and glasses next to a brick wall

Carol Wild Photography

Three years ago, illustrator and Instagram influencer, Mari Andrew, could have never predicted that a simple desire to find a creative outlet after a break-up could turn into a thriving career. But, that’s exactly what happened.

When I say “influencer” I don’t mean in the traditional sense. Because, instead of glossy photos posing with the latest Chanel boy, or capturing a perfectly curated acai bowl, Andrew has amassed a huge fan base (842,000 followers and counting) by tapping into the more ordinary and un-glamorous parts of life, illustrating them in a way that resonates with so many (including myself). Whether it’s about illness, loss, ex-boyfriends, or simply the awkward and confusing decade that is our twenties, one thing's for sure: Andrew has definitely become a resounding, authentic voice on a platform that can sometimes feel fake and unattainable.

But what started on Instagram is reaching a far wider audience for Andrew. Having just penned a book, Am I there Yet ($28) earlier this year, Andrew is flying down to Sydney and Melbourne with The School of Life to talk about the journey of adulthood. To celebrate, I sat with Andrew for a chat—while also trying my hardest not to fan-girl. 

How did you first get started in illustration?

I’m 31 and I started when I was 28, so it’s very new for me. I never expressed myself through drawing before. I’ve always liked to draw, and so it came from going through a very dark period of loss in my life: Both heartbreak over relationship and the loss of my father. I didn’t really have anything to cling onto. I didn’t have a job I was very fulfilled by, I no longer had a relationship I identified with. I had great friends, but I didn’t really have anything going for me, I think. I wasn’t living in the city I wanted to be in, so I just wrote a list of things that made me happy and things I wanted practice doing everyday because they make me happy. And painting with watercolours was one of them. It was something I found very relaxing and soothing.

I found dealing with this period of loss and depression by just watching TV all the time, and that didn’t feel very healthy, so I wanted to do something while I was watching television. Painting was that thing, and so I started doing paintings. First it was just little drawings of things I had seen that day or little memories, and then it evolved into a scene or something I had actually experienced. So, for me it became a way of expressing a lot of the things that were going on in my life: With dating, loss and just observations. That’s when strangers started following me, which I never ever ever expected to happen. It’s crazy!

What were you doing before your illustrations took off?

I was doing every job you could possibly imagine before I was able to quit any sort of day job to become an illustrator full-time. I had so many jobs, I was always creative, and I always really liked to write. So for me, my day job didn’t have much to do with my identity.

I took jobs that made sense either for my schedule or seemed kind of interesting. I never really identified with my job. I’ve done so many things, I’ve taught dance lessons, I’ve taught English, I’ve worked in retail, I've been a barista.

It never felt like a reality for me to work creatively full-time because it’s so rare that someone is able to do that. I’m very grateful that I am able to do it because my dad was a musician, and it was a very difficult life for him. Very early on, I realised I didn’t want to do that: I don’t want my profession to be hand-to-hand cash, because that’s too much pressure.

Going full-time into illustration was just a matter of convenience. I was able to quit my job because I literally didn’t have time to work anymore. I was too busy with illustrating. So, it wasn't necessarily that I found success in illustrating, it just kind of took over my life.

Where do you seek inspiration? 

It comes in many different ways. Often I draw from memory, and I don’t really like to draw things that are happening to me right now (that’s a lot to put in public). Sometimes the feeling I’m having in the moment is something I can tap back into; sometimes when I'm in a really good place and I’m really excited, I can tap back into a time when I was falling in love a couple of years ago or I was really excited about a new opportunity. Sometimes when I’m in a place of sadness and rejection or loss, I can tap back into the emotions I experienced a few years ago of grief, health issues or various things I’ve been through.

I’m very lucky to have a very emotional memory, a strong emotional memory, so I’m able to remember the way I felt at a certain times. 

You’ve been very open about your journey with health and sickness, what's it like being so vulnerable to the public?

It's been amazing. I don’t think anything bad happens for a reason. But I do think that there is something you can do with that. For me, I think my art really shifted at that moment when I was recovering from serious potential fatal illness, and in the throes of post-trauma from dealing with this really difficult thing and feeling very isolated from other people. At the time it didn’t seem like a gift, but in hindsight I think that’s the moment when I realised that the art that I make can be as healing as the art that other people have made that has helped heal me.

What is one of the key lessons you’ve learnt while trying to ask yourself that question from your book "am I there yet?"

Something I always say when I get asked by a young twenty-something, "What would you tell your former self?" I think that I spent so much time trying to make everything in my life have a purpose. If I was dating someone, it had to be someone I could see myself marrying. Or if I was in a job, it had to be something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life. Or if I was living in a certain city, it had to be one that I thought I could live in forever. I was seeing every decision extremely indicative of the way the rest of my life would go. 

Now, I’ve had a million jobs and boyfriends and cities, and I just wish that I had let myself let myself enjoy the experimentation of it, like I did in later years. But it felt like there was so much pressure to know my direction and where I was going. In hindsight , I don’t really remember the job I had at 23, but I do remember what it was like to walk home from the job and the flowers I saw every day on the way home and the friends at the time. The things I didn’t think were necessarily that important are actually my strongest memories and my fondest memories. So the biggest lesson I've learned would just be the idea that experiences are just as important as accomplishments. Even if they don’t check off a box, it's still very very important to enjoy the meandering time that you have.

To see Andrew speak, you can get tickets at The School of Life website. 

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