Holly Marsden – Art can save your life

In Holly’s words …

Who inspires me? Those who stay true to their heart and never give up.
Motto: My maiden name is Willis and as kids my dad would always say ‘where there is a Willis there is a way’. I have always lived by that.

Holly Marsden still remembers the way she felt when she painted her first oil painting. She sat in her Dad’s art gallery as a six-year-old, her brother and sister by her side, as her Dad explained how to mix the paint with a medium, how to set out the painting plan, which elements to include first, how best to apply the paint, and how to select the most appropriately shaped brush.

With bright light spilling into the space and vibrant colours splashing across the canvas, Holly’s very being lit up in delight. Beaming up at her Dad, a professional artist, she realised she’d discovered the magic of art. And she was addicted to the feeling of joy that pulsed through her when she was painting.

kids pic
Holly’s first painting.

World shatters

As the years charged on Holly enrolled in a fine arts degree at university, fired by a dream of a career as an artist. But one year, as a 22-year-old, Holly endured two sexual assaults and her joyous world shattered around her.  “I grew up in a Christian family with a foundational belief that good things happen to good people, and bad things to bad people,” she says. “So I just kept asking myself why, why had this happened to me?”

“I just kept asking myself why, why had this happened to me?”

Grief on canvas

In between counselling sessions and university lectures, Holly would retreat to the stark white space at the university art studio, often after dark, to seek solace. With paint fumes in her nose, fluoro lights overhead, she’d transform giant canvases with great strokes of brooding abstract imagery, pouring her grief onto the canvas. Sometimes she’d find herself crying on the studio floor, splashes of paint all around her. But she remembers the studio as her “safe place”. “I basically quite literally painted myself out of grief,” Holly remembers. “For me art was a great, cathartic release.”

“I basically quite literally painted myself out of grief.”

Purging demons

Holly was getting by. Until one dark day when she attempted to take her own life. A housemate found Holly after she’d gulped sleeping pills in a bid to end her pain. Her friend called an ambulance.

After a hospital stay and still more counselling, Holly again retreated to the university art studio. She plunged her brushes into the oils and tore them across the canvas to purge her inner demons, and went on to earn high distinctions at university for the power of her artworks.

An exhibition of Holly’s works after her graduation showed the extent of her grief and pain on canvas. The art was confronting, shocking, moving. One painting depicted a laced nightie torn apart and sewn back together. Another showed the shape of the safety fire nozzle that had become imprinted in her brain as she’d stared at it from her hospital bed after the rape. Still another showed angry blood-red paint pouring outside the frame and down the wall.

Still another showed angry blood-red paint pouring outside the frame and down the wall.

Confronting artwork from the dark days.

Struggling artist

With university complete, Holly began to pursue her career as an artist. She held exhibitions, she sold paintings at markets, she tried selling screen printed T-shirts, she began selling kids craft packs, she created business logos.

In the meantime, Holly held a job as a carer to pay the bills. She found love, had two daughters, married and moved state. She and her husband started a pancake van in a bid to bring in some cash. She hustled, she dreamed, she despaired. She was the very definition of the struggling artist.

markets copy
Struggling artist.

Personal growth

Around the same time Holly noticed a friend blossoming in her business. What was her secret? Business coaching, came her friend’s reply. Holly invested in the same business coach, Fleur Porter, and embarked a period of massive personal growth.

Through coaching, she realised she’d held beliefs about art that were holding her back – that it was hard to make money from art, that artists always struggled. And she set to work on changing those beliefs. She also came to realise offering the kids art packs wasn’t what really fired her up. It was accessing her own creativity, and helping others to do so, that lit her up inside. This is what she needed to pursue.

Holly began offering artists retreats and workshops aimed at helping people find joy in their own creativity. She reaffirmed her commitment to making a career out of art. Such determination to succeed at art put strains on her marriage. Was she being unrealistic, she questioned herself? Should she give up on her dream? Should she get a ‘real’ job? Her coach helped her realise the importance of living her life purpose. Holly refused to give in. Slowly word of the art retreats spread and money started to follow. Life suddenly became brighter.

Art can save your life

Along the way Holly began to meet people who were like she’d been – desperate to make a living from their art but held back by limiting beliefs and fears. It was these people she’d set her sights on helping. Again guided by her coach, Holly began to offer six-week online courses called The Bohemian Project.

Finally the money flowed. Holly had found her calling. “I feel really passionate about helping these artists and fighting for them,” Holly says. “I also realised that I’d always found it easy to be brave about my art – about putting it out there – and that others weren’t like that. I realised I can help others, that I need to help others to be brave.”

In discovering what she feels called to do in the world, Holly says the rest of her life fell into place. “I realised it’s not an option for me not to do my art,” she says. “Now my husband and my kids know that’s who I am – if I’m not creating I’m not me. I’m happy, so my family is happy. And now my husband sees the potential for me to be the main income earner.”

Holly’s example has led her daughters to indulge in their own creativity. Their joy at creation reminds Holly of the way she was in her father’s art studio – before the dark years – when she discovered the magic of art. Sitting in her home today, her now vibrantly coloured works adorning the walls, she looks back at her life and is convinced it was art that got her through her lowest days.  She’s also convinced that pursuing art can help others in similar ways. “I really believe art can save your life,” she says.

Brighter images depict brighter times.

Find out more…

Learn more about Holly on her Holly Holster website.



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