Janice Sylvia Brook reveals how a childhood fraught with pain drove her to success
Ucan2 speaks with the artist Janice Sylvia Brook, on how she has overcome her disability to have paintings hanging in the Whitehouse.
Janice Sylvia Brock's talent has brought her a life beyond her wildest dreams, even though she needs two hands to hold a paintbrush.
Janice Sylvia Brock is an internationally acclaimed artist whose work hangs in private collections in Europe, the Caribbean, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and in Canada and the USA where two small oil paintings depicting the English landscape grace the walls of the White House.
In 2010, Janice exhibited in London's world-famous Saatchi Gallery, while a subsequent private showing of her work was attended by HRH The Prince of Wales. In June 2011, she was a guest of HM The Queen at Buckingham Palace. Her paintings have changed hands for as much as US$250,000.
Janice's painting career however started in hospital where she spent most of her adolescence suffering from Stills Disease - a severe form of rheumatoid arthritis, a condition which has become her constant companion. Her illness prevented her taking up an offer of a place at Manchester College of Art although she has since coached both undergraduates and professional artists in techniques of working in oils, her favoured medium, as well as graphite, water-colour and pastel. She has also tutored guests in painting at Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados and has also held art therapy classes in prisons, psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes.
Janice approaches a new canvas without the aid of sketches, photographs or preliminary outlines. From the first touch of colour laid onto the virgin canvas her brush strokes are utterly confident, and this is evident in the results her work resonates with life, sensuality, and humour. Her portraits imbue their subjects with a living quality that no camera could ever capture.
What was your childhood like?
My childhood was fraught with pain and gruelling hospital procedures. However the first 10 years of my life were very different. I enjoyed a happy home life in the Cheshire countryside. I was sporty and loved playing with the local children.
Everything changed in 1960, when I woke up one morning in agonizing pain. It felt like my body was on fire. I could barely walk or use my hands because I was in so much pain.
I was admitted to Pendlebury Children's Hospital in Salford, Greater Manchester, where I remained for 18 months. I was diagnosed with Still's disease also known as systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis.
According to the Arthritis Foundation the cause is unknown. The condition can cause joint pain, fatigue, fever and rashes and some experts believe the genes causing it can be activated by a virus or bacteria. I wasn't able to walk or sit up and spent a lot of the time crying and wishing I could just go back home. I was in constant pain.
Six months before I became ill I fell off the swing in our garden from quite a height. At first, my parents thought I'd broken my back, but I'd just winded myself and my body was in shock, I have always felt that this may have been the trigger for my condition.
After six months in hospital the doctors put me on a course of steroids, which gave me some relief but they made me very chubby which I hated. There was another boy on the ward with me who was also overweight, rather innocently but cruelly the other kids called us Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
When did you start to paint?
I felt so miserable and hopeless that I asked a nurse for a brush and some paint and straight away a whole new world opened up for me.
I took to painting immediately. I painted a Hawaiian girl who was very beautiful. A few days later my dad visited me in hospital when I told him that I was going to be a famous artist!
What was it like going back to school?
I walked into the hospital and left in a wheelchair on steroids. Returning to school was a challenge, I felt like an outsider after missing out on so much education and friendships and I was no longer able to enjoy sport which I had enjoyed so much.
What gave you your early resolve?
Over the next five years, my joints began to deteriorate leading to regular hospital stays. But my determination not to be fettered by Still's disease came when a boy made a cutting comment.
I was 15 years old and was sitting on my parents' porch when the lad said to me, 'Are you Janice Brock?' I told him yes, and he replied 'My, aren't you ugly!'" I cried and cried, but I knew the steroids were making me bloated. So in an instant I decided to wean myself off them.
It took eight months, but I had the courage to take my life into my own hands.
Tell us about the surgeon who changed your life
When I turned 17 I was able to walk again, thanks to pioneering surgeon Geoffrey Newton at Manchester Royal Infirmary, who gave me new knees. He corrected my knees and put steel rods in my legs so I could stand up. The surgery was groundbreaking.
Shortly before he died in 2017, I visited him. He was very unwell and I held his hand. He was touched that I came to say goodbye. Thanks largely to him and my surgery, I was finally able to act like a young person. Even though my limbs and digits have been shortened by my condition, with my new knees, I was able to join my friends on the dance floor after Mr Newton's operation. Unfortunately, after a few years, I needed to use my wheelchair more and more. But Mr Newton gave me the resolve never to lose the ability to walk again.
I've known a lot of people with Still's disease who've died in their 30s because of complications, but I'm now 70 and although I need the support of a carer I am still painting and living my life!
How did your paintings come to hang in the White House?
A White House staff member bought two of my paintings in a London auction, just before Bill Clinton was in office. I didn't know anything about it until someone in the art world told me, as they had been bought and sold by a third party. They were two English landscape paintings in oil – small canvases of about 8ins by 10ins. One was of an autumn scene and the other was a spring scene.
When George Bush was in office I was invited to the White House for lunch, unfortunately it was short notice and I had clients visiting me in Barbados where I had a house, so I couldn’t go, sadly, the opportunity has never presented itself since. Nevertheless, I feel extremely proud of the fact that my artwork has hung on the walls of the most important building in the world.
What was it like meeting the Queen?
In 2011, I went to Buckingham Palace. I was invited as a guest of Lord Allan Willett who I'd known for many years, after meeting him at charity events and functions. Along with Lord and Lady Willett and my former partner Roy, who has sadly since died, I went to the palace. We saw the Queen who took the time to say hello to everyone. It was a brief but wonderful experience – she's an amazing lady.
Tell us more about your life and career
Because I spent so much time in hospital I had no formal training. However, it has never held me back. I sold my first painting aged 22 to a little old lady for just £3 and I had my first exhibition of my work which included everything from English landscapes to nudes at a local library when I was the same age.
Since then, I've exhibited all over the world and been able to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for charities helping disabled children through the sales of my work.
John Lodge from The Moody Blues, a lovely man, has bought several paintings from me, numerous famous entrepreneurs have collected my work, Simon Cowell tells me he's going to come to my studio for a cup of tea but he hasn’t shown up as yet!
I've worked at charity events with Cliff Richard and I met Cilla Black in Barbados – She was a lovely lady and Cliff is fabulous. I was also flown out on a private plane to meet with a music producer on Mustique. He wanted me to look at some walls in his house to paint.
Was there someone particularly special in your life?
One of the highest points of my life was meeting my partner Roy on an online dating site in the late nineties. Roy and I enjoyed 16 wonderful years together until his death in 2011. At that time, I was concerned that I might never find the strength to paint again. I was numb from the pain and lost focus. Roy had been my soul mate. He even gave up his job so he could support me; in losing him I felt like I'd lost everything. But painting is my lifelong passion, eventually I found the strength to carry on again .
Since Roy's death Russ Brockel, has helped me in the studio.
He photographs my paintings, watermarks them, and does the graphics. On days that I have difficulty walking, he helps me to get around.
In 2019, I was working on a huge mural project for four and half months at Nirvana Spa in Wokingham, Berkshire, and he was there every day. He helped me on to the scissor lift each day so that I could reach the enormous spaces and he prepared my paints. I painted four goddesses 12ft high by about 10 ft wide which was a challenge as I am only 4ft 10 and a half inches. I couldn't have done it without Russ’s help.
What about recent charity work
One of my career highlights came last year, when I was made an ambassador for The Haven + London, a charity supporting creatives based in London. It particularly supports their mental health.
I am also organising an art exhibition and gala dinner in September 2022 in aid of the charity Back on Track at the historic Ashridge House in Berkhamsted. Back on Track does wonderful work repairing and rehabilitating former serviceman who saw action in Afghanistan and Iraq. I am also raising funds for a 6 year old boy with severe disabilities at that event which will be very glamorous and open to all.
Have you reflected your mental health in your art?
Yes, my early work was inspired by religious art and looking back the imagery and dark tones probably represented the tunnel I was going through with my illness at that time. Years later I painted a self-portrait called 'The Challenge' using both hands. I’d been to a fancy dinner at a private function at a stunning house in Barbados. The hosts served soup for starters. Because of my ‘faulty’ elbow, I couldn't lift the spoon to my mouth, so I asked for a straw. The waiter came back with straws for everyone and we all had soup out of straws. It was a wonderful gesture on their part.
How is your physical health today?
I can stand to paint and walk short distances but I am forced to hold the paintbrush with two hands. Unfortunately just 5 weeks ago I fell in the bathroom at home in Alderley Edge and fractured my pelvis which has put me back in a wheelchair. Despite being in terrible pain, I am determined to get better.
How do you look back on your life?
The gift of being able to paint has allowed me to live a wonderful life. I've had the most amazing experiences. I have travelled all over the world and met incredible people. I am lucky to have a sense of humour and I love people. I think that has helped me. Of course I live with severe physical challenges every day, but, although I have the occasional bad days, I generally don't let it get me down.
My motto is, 'I can do,' and no matter what, you can survive and thrive.
It makes me very happy to think that when I'm dead and gone people may remember me for my oil paintings. Despite the ongoing challenges with my health, I don’t plan to put down my brushes any time soon.
Go to www.janicesylviabrock.com.