How Elaine Wright-Williams ditched the corporate ladder to become a full-time artist
Jumping off a cliff was a free-to-be-me revelation for a one-time middle manager who ditched the boardroom for the brushes.
Words: Leanne Moore Photos: Helen Bankers
Despite being at the top of her corporate game, six years ago Elaine Wright-Williams felt like her life was crumbling. She knew she had to make a dramatic change but the prospect filled her with fear. What Elaine really wanted was to become an artist.
But giving up the high-powered job she had fought so hard for seemed like a crazy thing to do. What helped Elaine make the break from her senior design role at an Auckland plant-scaping firm was a pivotal moment in her life some years earlier.
Strapped to a flying trapeze with her husband Kevin, she faced her fear and plunged 45 metres at 120 kilometres per hour on a giant jungle swing in Australia.
“Making that jump among the trees in Cairns gave me the confidence I needed to leave work,” says Elaine, aged 56. “The feeling I had as I was freefalling was a strange combination of sheer terror and extreme exhilaration. Making the change I so badly needed in my work life required the same leap of faith.”
Unchallenged and unfulfilled in her career, Elaine was desperate to leave. “It was like being on a train that was hurtling along and I wanted to open the carriage door and jump off. I had all the trimmings of conventional success – a good salary with a company car – yet it wasn’t making me happy,” she says.
Instead she felt like she was drowning in a culture that appeared to reward a sea of middle management that cared only about the bottom line.
“You could argue that all businesses need to focus on the bottom line but, in my opinion, this could be achieved with a management style that’s open to new ways of working,” says Elaine.
“I remember going to a conference in Sydney and trying to talk to different managers in my company to suggest things that could be improved, but they just didn’t want to know.”
Disillusioned, Elaine thought moving to another firm might be the solution; it turned out to be just more of the same. “Deep down in my heart I knew this was not what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. She left after a few months.
What she had not realized was how much of her self-worth she had attached to her corporate success. “I felt an incredible sense of shame after I’d resigned. I felt like hiding at home and didn’t want to go to the supermarket in case I bumped into a friend and they asked what I was doing. They always assumed I was between jobs but when I told them I had left, I felt like a failure.”
Filling the void that her career had taken up required a disciplined approach. “I made sure I kept to the same routine every day, starting with a long walk at six in the morning.
I think that helped heal me and keep me on track,” says Elaine, who applies the same rigour to her painting, spending several hours in her studio at her Torbay home five days a week.
In other ways, she found her new lifestyle intensely liberating.
“I started dressing in a more bohemian way, a bit like a hippy, and I’ve wanted to stay with that. In my old life I had to be Mrs National Design Manager. Image is so important in the world of design. Each day I had to give a lot of thought, care and attention to how I would put myself together. It felt good to be free of that.”
Change is scary and the most frightening thing for Elaine was giving up her fiscal independence. “Over the years I have spent a lot of time worrying about what will happen when I retire, of ending up by myself, with no means of financial support. That’s been a lifelong fear but, in the end, I had to trust that it would be okay.”
So far, there has been scant return from Elaine’s art. She spends a couple of days a week helping Kevin out at his company, which specializes in the field of work health and safety. “It covers the cost of my art materials,” she says.
“And it’s good for me to get out of the house because I tend to be a bit of a lone wolf. For now, it’s working out but eventually I might be able to sell enough art to give that up.”
There was a brief time, in her mid-30s, when Elaine studied art. She was accepted at Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design, taking drawing and painting classes. “I loved being in that environment.
I always went in early and spent a lot of time in the library.” After a year at Whitecliffe, her studies and her first marriage ended simultaneously. “I thought, ‘This is not the time for me to be studying art. I need to be around for my children.’”
At the time her daughters, Chloe and Georgia, were still at school. Elaine put her artistic ambitions on hold and switched her energy to establishing herself in the corporate world. Working office jobs, she studied part-time at Massey University’s Albany campus, then full-time. She completed her degree, majoring in marketing, in 2007.
“It felt good to be that kind of role model for my daughters.”
Her own childhood was filled with fear and anxiety. From the age of 11, when her stepfather and mother separated, Elaine took over caring for her mum who suffered bouts of mental illness.
As these intensified, and her mother struggled to hold down a job, they moved frequently, from apartment to apartment. “As a child I never knew what was going to happen. I had no security,” says Elaine.
When she left home at 17 to attend secretarial college, her mother’s health went downhill.
“Without me there to help her cope she had a complete breakdown and ended up being committed. She spent the rest of her life in a flat under the care of mental-health services,” says Elaine, who visited whenever she could.
“We loved each other very much,” says Elaine of her mum, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia.
In her teenage years, art played a vital role in Elaine’s home life.
She would spend hours sketching elegant line drawings of the models depicted in Vogue. Lost in her own world, she could forget the chaos around her.
“I’ve always been happiest when I’m drawing or painting,” she says. “I can’t fully explain it, but it was and still is the most amazing feeling to create something from within.”
These days Elaine spends as much time as she can on professional development, attending classes and workshops, as well as researching technical expertise in books and online. In judging her own work, she oscillates from feelings of abject failure to success. “There is not much in between,” she says.
“At times I have feelings of hopelessness and frustration when I can’t figure out how to make something work. Other days I feel incredibly happy with what I’ve done.”
In 2016 she won a local competition with Dolphins’ Rest, taking the painting award from among 137 entries in the annual Mairangi Arts Centre exhibition.
It was a self-affirming moment for Elaine who has been buoyed throughout her artistic journey by her family’s support. “They believed in me and have been very encouraging over the years.”
There have been occasions when she has questioned whether she made the right decision leaving her job, but those moments have lessened over time. “At the beginning I believed another company would probably come along that I’d like to work for but that never happened. I’d say I’m unemployable now.”
So, does Elaine regard herself as a successful painter? “I might never be a ‘successful’ painter but what is success?” she asks. “Perhaps it’s people liking my paintings and buying them. At least I won’t die wondering. I’m giving it my best shot.”
ARTISTS THAT INSPIRE
“In my opinion, Picasso, Bonnard, Monet, Cézanne, Matisse and Degas were all artists searching for their own way of expressing themselves in contrast to the accepted style of painting at that time. Their work led to the beginning of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism and Cubism.
These artists inspire me due to their conviction to create something new and to express themselves by using brush strokes, colour, texture and light to capture the essence of a scene, without being tied by the restrictions of reality.
Their innovative artwork was rejected initially but their courage and belief in themselves kept them going. Not all made it through the darkest moments, but we have their amazing work to be inspired by today.”
THE JOY OF A STUDIO
“Having a studio at home is the culmination of many years of longing for my own art room. It’s a place where I can focus on my painting, unobserved. To have your own studio is to be at one with your painting on a journey together, without any distractions or demands.”
“It’s not a large space, just 3m x 3m, separate from the house and positioned in a sunny courtyard. It’s set up so everything is at my fingertips.
The shelves are crammed with reference books, paints, brushes, solvents, sketchpads, canvases, pencils and cloths. I have hung a collection of small paintings for inspiration.
There are rulers of various sizes, a couple of houseplants and a floor that’s never swept. During times of contemplation I can look out to the courtyard through a wall of windows and glass doors and watch nature and the changing light.
I’ve pinned the poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann to a wall. It was one of Mum’s favourites.”
See Elaine’s work at wrightwilliamsart.com