Corrina Thurston could have died eight years ago. Instead, out of excruciating pain she found inspiration, a future and her career as an artist.
It was all quite unexpected.
In 2008, the Spaulding High School graduate became ill while attending St. Lawrence University, where she was planning to study anthropology and biology. In Barre, she had been a three-sport athlete and a 4.0 student. From an early age, she knew she wanted to be a scientist, possibly focusing on forensics. She got to college as a freshman that fall, and almost immediately started feeling sick. She lost energy. She developed a never-ending, debilitating migraine. She stopped sleeping. Thurston went from attending classes and running five miles a day to laying immobile in bed. Light and sound were too much for her bear. She couldn’t eat.
“It was awful,” she said.
Thurston, now 27, left school and moved back home with her parents in Barre Town. Eventually, after multiple tests and medical specialists, she was diagnosed with Lyme disease and a handful of associated tick-borne illnesses — all of which were attacking her system at the same time. The treatment process was slow and laborious, so Thurston spent the next two years more or less confined to bed, battling fatigue, more headaches and boredom. Her muscles started to atrophy. She had to wear dark sunglasses each time she went out for appointments, sometimes even needing a wheelchair to get around. At one point, the drugs she took caused hallucinations, depression and suicidal thoughts.
“I couldn’t read, watch TV — any of those things you do in bed,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything.”
That is, until 2010.
“One day, I reached into my closet and took out a piece of poster board and pulled it back into the bed with me,” Thurston recalled. She dug up some colored pencils and starting drawing. Thurston had never had any art training beyond what she had in high school. She was not even a doodler.
But something happened in the painful haze of her illness.
“I started putting down layers with the colored pencils,” she said. “I had no idea they could be that vibrant, or that you could do that kind of detail.”
On her knees in bed, gripping the colored pencils in her left hand, Thurston spent hours drawing and blending layers with her right hand. “It started out at about an hour a day,” she said.
She was drawing animals, often from pictures or magazines, almost exactly. She discovered quickly that she could, in fact, re-create details right down to the texture of fur or the irises of eyes.
“Honestly, it doesn’t make sense,” she said.
From a distance, even in those early days, her artwork looks like photographs. Today, you would be hard pressed to differentiate her work from a photo or an oil painting — the detail is that precise.
“I didn’t know I could do it,” she said. “I was blown away. I self-taught in my bed in the corner of the basement of my parents’ house.”
While her doctors were grateful Thurston had something to do to occupy her time while she was being treated, she was the one who embraced the newfound talent. She joined a Facebook group devoted to colored pencil artists, and even started posting her work online for friends to enjoy. She sought advice online, and learned from other colored pencil artists.
“The response was one of disbelief,” she said. “People don’t just pick up colored pencils and start doing artwork.”
Yet she continued to struggle with her illnesses.
“My body was fighting what we were doing (for treatment),” she said. “It was a struggle ... but at least with my artwork I could see that I was completing something, doing things. I could see the progress.”
Despite feeling fatigued and in pain, and having her vision impaired by “static,” she continued to refine her technique, using new materials, pencils and paper stock. She worked in charcoal and graphite as well. She watched videos and consulted with fellow artists online. But she has still never sought formal training.
Depending on the detail of the print, a drawing can take between 15 and 100 hours to complete.
“I already have my niche,” she explained. “While I am sure I would learn something, I am already feeling successful at doing what I love.”
And it has paid off.
In April 2014, she tried a new battery of medicines. And while she felt worse in the beginning, Thurston said she was able to start walking around the house, the neighborhood, get outside more. She still suffers from chronic headaches, but she sleeps better. Her energy levels have increased to the point where she formed a business, replete with a website and marketing plan, last year. In her first year in business, Thurston was able to earn enough money to make a living.
“That’s good,” she joked. “I go through a lot pencils.”
“If you told me eight years ago I was going to be an artist, I would have laughed in your face,” she said. “If you told me four or five years ago that I was going to have my own business, I would have said, ‘No way — you’re crazy.’”
Now she lives in Richmond with her boyfriend, working from a tiny space in her apartment.
Thurston said she loves the art and the business side of her venture. “I get to use both sides of my brain,” she said.
Her parents, Michael and Sandy Thurston, own Exile on Main Street in Barre. Her older brother and sister are also professionals. “So I always feel like I had a lot of catching up to do,” she said. “But I have learned a lot from watching them all.”
Today, she is doing lots of commission work, among them the 2017 Tunbridge Fair poster, pet portraits, family portraits, a drawing of a Peterbilt truck, an image of an ultrasound of a baby. She recently started drawing on wood, and is considering trying to draw images on furniture. She also sells her artwork on merchandise such as cups and jewelry, cards and, of course, framed and matted prints. She has started a blog about her journey, which she updates regularly.
In the meantime, Thurston is hoping to do more work aimed at raising awareness about issues pertinent to animals, conservation and the environment.
“I’ve always loved animals,” she said. “It’s always been that way.”
And she wants to be an advocate for colored pencil artists.
“There is a stigma,” she said of the medium. “Some people don’t take it seriously.”
Thurston wants to be able to teach workshops and speak about colored pencils, moving closer to a fine art than a hobbyist’s art form.
“I have a different path from the one I started on,” she said. “I’ve learned you can persevere through really crappy times. ... I know better than anyone now that life can change just like that. But I found what I love. I know how blessed I am.”
Her work is on display at Blinking Light Gallery through this month, as well as galleries around Burlington. Her work will be shown at several locations in 2017, and some postcards and prints are available at Exile in Barre.
To view more of her work, or to read Thurston’s blog, go to her website at www.corrinathurston.com.