Brittany Lee Howard
Deep colors churn heavy and ruminative across large rectangular canvases leaning against every surface inside the garage Brittany Lee Howard turned into her painting studio. Among her oceanic series and a handful of neon-lit nudes, ribbons of brighter, more fanciful pigments dance with the darkness, too, making each of her surreal images feels like a portrait of a very real emotional journey.
Through endless rows of brushes and battle-tested acrylic bottles, three ACs blast away and a plastic drop-cloth doubles as a drop-ceiling to call a truce with the July heat in a space that she’s quickly outgrowing.
A white board is inscribed with a seemingly random realization, written in Howard’s own hand: “You can.”
She wasn’t always so sure.
In late 2021, a severe tonsil infection ravaged Howard’s throat, leading to nine surgeries and 30 days in the ICU, more than half of which she spent intubated. She lost her hair and didn’t know if she would speak again. She weighed 100 pounds, maybe.
And she survived.
“I didn’t want my Instagram, which is where I really share and sell my work, to be a place where people came to it and got sad. So, I kept things private and kept posting paintings, even though I was going through a lot,” Howard says, her hands marked by dried dashes of decadent blues and sea greens. “My work is colorful. It’s about joy. I want my paintings to convey that.”
Howard’s voice gets tired after talking for a while, and the range of motion in her neck is still somewhat limited. But she believes she can retain it if she keeping using her arms to paint every day. And she has, even when she was sick and self-conscious of her appearance in her painting videos.
“My near-death experience came at an interesting time, because I was really sad creatively then,” she says. “Burnout is real. It creeps up on you when you least expect it. You can ignore it, but your body won’t. It’ll let you know.”
Now Howard is collaborating with a plastic surgeon who helps women who have lost their hair or had double mastectomies, reflecting on the same feelings of physical doubt she has overcome.
Challenging herself to grow through such a harrowing medical emergency, Howard has arrived at a fresh start, with a renewed love of expressing her emotions through paint and a more hopeful sense of her impact as a creative.
“When you have purpose, you feel OK saying ‘no,’” Howard says. “You’re operating without that fear, and even though your work becomes more significant, you’re comfortable putting yourself first, too.”