From patissiere to butcher to art therapist to parrot relationship counsellor, artist Sophia Louise Butler’s career path may not be a conventional one – but it’s very much her own.
How would you sum up your art?
You’d have to see it and try to sum it up to me! I paint, sculpt, craft in felt. I’m currently painting a series of acrylics of powerful women who have had mental health struggles. Nina Simone is one I’ve already finished. Then again, a friend had been pregnant and isolated throughout lock-down, so when we were allowed to meet up again, I was inspired to turn her baby bump into a starry depiction of the heavens with body paints. It was a way of re-establishing that connection – between us, the baby we could feel kicking and the fact that she was growing another human in there was out of this world!
How long have you been painting?
Art has always been part of my life, encouraged by my extended family. My great-grandfather had lived in Africa and his African art collection fascinated me as a child; and my Mum had lived in Japan and Singapore so Eastern culture has been a big influence too. Then when I was 13 we moved from England to Australia. I loved it, and still see it as my second home, but a relationship there turned abusive so I decided I needed a complete break and came back to England.
Did you go to art college while in Australia?
No, I left school at 15 to take up an apprenticeship – you can do that there. I had done a placement at a French patisserie and they offered me training as a pastry chef, which appealed to my creative side. But the painting always continued. Then when I began looking to move back to Canterbury I found there were no opportunities for a pastry chef: patisseries were either a chain operation or the pastries were imported direct from France. So I moved over into savoury pastries in Australia and trained in butchery. And when I came back to England I started work as Pork & Co’s only female butcher. I still work with them part-time while I’m studying art therapy two days a week over in West Sussex.
Which is another real change of career!
I felt it was time. While I love the hospitality industry, I have to accept it is very physically demanding. I have fibromyalgia, an auto-immune condition that means constant pain, fatigue anxiety and sometimes depression and I would never be able to do the long days required to make beautiful pastries as a career.
I had always been fascinated by psychology and counselling and also, of course, in art. And when I started looking around for alternative careers, I discovered art therapy combined both in a wonderful and healing way.
And you’re at college currently?
I’m in my second year of a three-year course in Transpersonal Arts in Therapy, which takes me up to postgraduate level. I’m studying at the Tobias School of Art & Therapy in East Grinstead. Going to a London art college would mean being swamped among hundreds of other students but this training is very intimate – there have never been more than 14 students in a class. And in the third year they will find me placements close to home in Whitstable. I’ve told them I’m open to a wide range of settings – NHS, care homes, schools, special needs such as autism and so on.
What exactly does art therapy do?
It’s a very broad field: basically it’s using art to promote well-being – and my own life experiences makes me very aware just how therapeutically powerful art can be. The Tobias follows the Rudolf Steiner vision of Anthroposophy, which looks to promote human understanding the through body, soul and spirit. We are encouraged to work with Nature, and the changing seasons. If working in a care home, for instance, where residents can feel cut off from the natural world, we bring the outside in with flowers and fruits and encourage appreciation of the seasonal changes to the outside space.
Have you built a family of your own now, here in Whitstable?
Yes, there’s me, my partner, our dog and four parrots! I started with budgies but then moved on to a conure. However I didn’t realise they get very possessive and think they’re in a relationship with you. He’d keep trying to get into my top and would attack my partner or anyone else who came near! So we got him a partner and they settled down happily together. Then came a kakiriki, who has an unequited love for one of the conures but seems quite content to watch them. And finally a caique, who loves everbody, climbs everywhere and destroys everything! People should realise parrots need a lot of commitment. They’re as bright as a toddler, can live to a great age, and need lots of stimulation and company to stay happy.