In September of 2015, Mari Andrew was recovering from the loss of her father, a painful breakup, and some serious health issues. She was suffering, badly, when a line from Cheryl Strayed’s advice column leapt off the page: “This is how you get unstuck… You reach.”
And reach she did. Andrew took dance lessons, guitar lessons, and surf lessons. Finally, she ordered a cheap set of watercolor paints from Amazon and gave herself an assignment: make one drawing a day. Andrew was 28 years old, working in marketing in Washington, DC, and had never painted seriously before. But on Sept. 13, 2015, she took a photo of her first illustration and posted it on a private Instagram account for an audience of one.
And then, Andrew made another painting—and then another. She made art about being human. She drew comics about friendship, dating, and coffee. The daily picture became her favorite part of the day. She rented space in an artist studio and worked from 6am until it was time to for her day job; she rushed home from dates at 11:55pm to finish illustrations by her self-imposed midnight deadline.
A typical Instagram feed can feel like the official news service of a tightly controlled state where it is always the golden hour and everyone is #blessed. Indeed, a recently published UK survey declared Instagram the social media platform with the most negative impact on users’ mental health, particularly when it comes to anxiety and body image issues. Amid these idealized, stylized snapshots, Andrew’s drawings are square-shaped valentines to vulnerability and compassion.
A month into the project, Andrew changed her Instagram privacy settings so that friends could see the drawings too. Soon people who weren’t friends or blood relatives started to follow her. By the one-year anniversary of her first post, 120,000 people were following her account. Today, she has more than 473,000 fans.
For her part, Andrew says the social media platform has always been a source of happiness, not anxiety. “It feels very cozy to me,” she said. “I’ve heard other people say this too, and I’m not sure why, because there’s nothing super cozy about 450K followers. It just feels much more pleasant and protected than Twitter or Facebook, which seem much more out there and public.”
Last year Andrew left her day job to work full-time as an illustrator. Her first book of illustrated essays comes out next year, in 2018. Despite her relative fame, Andrew still uses the same paints she bought on Amazon and a $3 set of brushes from a drugstore near her office. Her drawings are a daily reminder that all it takes to become an artist is to start making art.