Welsh illustrator and influencer on anxiety and the pitfalls of social media
“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what causes my flair ups of anxiety,” says Pen Llŷn native Niki Pilkington.
“It could be an upcoming project – even if it’s a project I’m looking forward to, I imagine the worst. I’m constantly doubting myself. I’ll think of other people with awful problems and wonder, who am I to complain?”
Niki burst onto the Welsh arts scene more than a decade ago and is best known for combining intricate and vibrant designs with heartfelt typography.
“Like most freelancers, I don’t have a normal schedule, which means I never really switch off from ‘work mode’.
“I don’t close my studio door on a Friday and take two days off. Most days, I get up early to tackle emails, then crack on with the creative side of my job, which for the most part is relaxing and I love it, but distractions throughout the day affect my flow – custom requests, orders to fulfil, social media etc – all things I love doing but usually things that need to be addressed right away.
“My mind is constantly skipping to other tasks so I don’t give myself much of a chance to chill out.”
Niki’s success as an illustrator opened the door to the world of social influencing, which she acknowledges has played a part in her mental health struggles.
“Our subconscious is so powerful and sometimes things bother me more than I realise. I could get 200 kind, heartwarming, lovely messages but one slightly negative comment can make me doubt my entire career.”
“Her popularity has proven stratospheric on TikTok in particular, where to date her following exceeds 152,000.
Despite being able to candidly sharing her struggles with fans these days, she hasn’t always felt comfortable baring her soul.
“I was lucky enough to have a film crew come over to record a documentary on my life as a Welsh creative living in LA a couple of years ago.
“Although I couldn’t wait to share my journey, it also came at a time when I was feeling particularly unhappy.
“Anyone not around me 24/7 might not notice anything was wrong, and for the most part I felt like the luckiest girl in the world, living the life I’d always dreamt of and would always put on that front, but there were some days I felt totally lost – panic attacks, hair loss, late nights worrying and all the other fun bits that come with anxiety.
“I came close to calling the whole thing off but didn’t want to let anyone down. When they arrived I had a little heart to heart with them, admitting how I felt like a fraud sharing my ‘perfect life’. They encouraged me to tell the truth.”
However, she stresses that social media isn’t the enemy.
“I don’t think social media is entirely to blame for my anxiety. I’ve always been a worrier and a perfectionist, so it brings out the worst in me and has added a pressure to my life that I’m not hardwired to cope with. But I’m getting there.”
A commission to illustrate the 2019 title Madi allowed Niki to explore mental health within the context of illustration. The book, by Dewi Wyn Williams, shares the journey of a teenage girl living with bulimia and anorexia.
Perhaps this, then, was the push Niki needed to explore mental health in her personal work.
“The reaction to Dear Anxiety blew me away. My work is created to make people feel motivated, nostalgic and just plain happy, so it was a difficult shift for me to start sharing anything other than rainbows and unicorns, but I’m so glad I did.
“People were overwhelmingly kind and understanding, and though it was terrifying to read so many ‘I feel the same way’ type messages, there was comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone.”
The connection young people in particular have with her work reflect how badly they’ve been let down. At the height of the pandemic CAMHS, the NHS’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, unceremoniously discharged vulnerable under-18s with no follow-up support.
Niki continues: “Drawing is my therapy. I’m lucky to have art to escape to, and I’m honored that others find comfort in my work, whether that’s through hanging my print on their wall as a daily reminder, having one of my motivational mugs on their desk, or sharing my work on social media when they can’t find the right words.
“I feel like I have a special community of people on social media, almost like a support group, and I’m turning to them more and more.’
“Instead of social media being a place where I felt I had to always show my best self, I now also show the messy parts and it’s so much more rewarding,” she says.
“Of course I still feel the pressures of social media but I’m learning to adapt; I’m learning that the world won’t fall apart if I don’t post for two weeks, and people also know that what I do share is genuine – the good and bad.”
Visit Niki’s Etsy store @NikiPilkington.