Real Life

I painted my grief away

How she healed her life with art from the heart

Narina Bailey doesn’t recall much about the day that she threatened to jump off a hotel building in downtown Auckland. Poised above the street, the only thing on her mind was to end the years of grief she had suffered since the death of her much-loved older sister Annessa.

“I remember looking down at my feet and that there were fire engines blocking off the traffic,” Narina, 43, says of the drama that unfolded over several hours back in 1993. The Lower Hutt woman also recalls being hauled to safety by a young constable who had changed into a hotel worker’s uniform so as not to alarm her.

Last December, she met him again for the first time since that day 24 years ago. Thanking him was something the self-taught artist says she had to do as she recounts the events leading up to a tearful but “awesome” reunion with her saviour Alan “AJ” Johnston.

“It really started with the death of my sister Annessa,” Narina tells. “She choked and basically died in front of me and my other siblings when she was eight. She was revived but was left severely brain-damaged – she couldn’t walk or talk and was blind.

“When she was 15, she got pneumonia and died. I never really got over it. I didn’t cope with it at all and it set me on a path to self-destruction. By the time I was 20, I had an eating disorder, depression and an anxiety disorder, and I’d started drinking quite heavily, plus there were drugs. I got to the stage where I felt I couldn’t keep going and ended up threatening to jump off the building.”

She continued to struggle emotionally and developed a P habit, at one stage almost dying after an overdose. But in 2003, her partner, an air-quality scientist, was offered a job in Wellington and took it.

Annessa in hospital

“We saw moving from Auckland as a chance to get away from all the bad stuff and start a fresh life,” she explains. “We had to leave all our friends and our families, but we felt a clean break was the only way to do it.”

Determined to turn her life around, Narina joined a gym, began collecting tattoos – “just because I think they are cool” – and started painting.

With AJ, the hero who saved her.

“The early paintings were quite dark and very sad. They had a bit of Annessa and a bit of me in them. I couldn’t talk about what I was going through, so a lot of hurt and grief came out in those first works.”

These days, though, her pop-surrealist portraits of wide-eyed girls are lighter and more ethereal, and they’re winning accolades around the country. She has 31 commissions lined up and is a regular exhibitor at the annual New Zealand Art Show. “It’s not about me any more,” she smiles. “It’s about creating something beautiful and special for someone else.”

With sister Annessa before the accident.

Poignantly, it was someone very close and special to Narina who prompted her meeting with AJ, now a police sergeant. She explains, “My dad John died last year. When he was in the hospice, he was telling me about how he grew up in extreme poverty during the 1930s and went on to be made a ward of the state.

“One of the things I admired most about him was that despite his rough start in life, he never got bitter or angry. He and my mum Lola were Salvation Army officers, and he dedicated his life to helping others, working with alcoholics and drug addicts.

“I know he touched a lot of lives and probably saved many too. It led me to thinking about reaching out to the man who saved mine. Our family was often told what an awesome man Dad was. I wanted to make sure AJ knew that at least one of the people he has saved was grateful for the risk he took – and for a second chance at life.”

Narina had always thought there were two people on the roof with her. “One was talking to me to try and distract me, while the other one snuck up and grabbed me,” she says.

“But when we were talking, I realised AJ was the only one and it was him who pulled me off the ledge. That’s when the tears came.”

While she describes her life now as still far from perfect, her latest tattoo – alongside small inked tributes to Annessa and her father – probably best sums up how far she’s come. “It’s a portrait of me all beaten up and bruised, and it says, ‘Fight like hell.’”

Words: Julie Jacobsen