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Stephen

Life hasn’t been easy for Stephen Whittaker, but despite adversity and setbacks he’s managed to come through it all with amazing insight, dignity, courage and humour.

Stephen was born in 1958 and his childhood was marked by loneliness and neglect. Stephen’s parents separated when he was young and from the age of three he was left alone in his house for long periods. Scared and rarely fed, Stephen would sleep under the house with his pet dog to escape the pain. Tragically, Stephen was also sexually abused during this time.

After time spent in orphanages, Stephen left home at age 11, sleeping in car parks and football ovals, foraging and finding places to live where he could.

Stephen started taking drugs from the age of 15, marking the beginning of a life of addiction. He lived in a massage parlor in Richmond for seven years, during which time he was regularly in and out of drug rehabilitation.

A particularly traumatic time was when Stephen was admitted to a psychiatric hospital during withdrawal from drugs, only to have to drag himself to court to face a sentence hearing. During the hearing, Stephen lay on the floor, almost unable to move.

In his 30s, Stephen lived in boarding houses and other accommodation, isolated, withdrawn and suffering severe depression. He lived for around 10 years with a family and for three of those years looked after a small child of the family. It was during this time that Stephen started drawing.

A heart attack followed in 2007, Stephen’s kidneys shut down and testing revealed he had Hepatitis C.

Living in a boarding house for two years, Stephen rarely left his room and hardly ate. Malnourished and still using drugs, Stephen’s health deteriorated rapidly. His body shut down, he found it extremely difficult to breathe and he was literally hours from death.

Stephen made a decision at this point to fight back. In his own words, he didn’t want to die without anybody knowing who he was; he couldn’t die without justifying his existence. He dragged himself to the hospital where testing revealed his kidney’s liver and kidneys were failing.

The hospital and a kind social worker helped Stephen helped Stephen on the road to recovery and move from his boarding house into a permanent home.

Stephen continues to suffer chronic health problems. In 2014 alone he spent four months in hospital and had 62 hospital stays, including 15 trips in emergency ambulances. He’s had part of his kidneys removed and he is now on dialysis three days a week for five hours at a time. As recent as October 2016 he suffered a heart attack.

Art allows Stephen go to a pleasant place where he doesn’t have to be logical or analytical. His art comes instinctively and just evolves – ‘from the back of my head’ – as he puts it. His life and story is released through his art – a process he finds far easier and more enjoyable than therapy!

Stephen has often drawn for 12 hours straight, long into the morning. Each piece can take him over 200 hours to complete. His only drawing tools are paper, Papermate ball-point pens and pencil.

Stephen’s artwork may never have been discovered if it weren’t for one of his caseworkers, who encouraged Stephen to hang them on his wall and enter a calendar competition.

Unfortunately, dialysis has made drawing difficult for Stephen, but he is trying to not let it stop him.

He also wants it to be known that there’s one thing all the medication, positivity and courage can’t cure him of: he’s a die hard Collingwood supporter.

Stephen’s originals drawings are not offered for sale, but you can buy prints and other merchandise with his art on the Open Canvas website.

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