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Sudbury artist Phillippa Gunn who had stroke at 28 vows to make success of passion that began as therapy

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Phillippa Gunn was struggling with the aftermath of a stroke and open heart surgery when she rediscovered her childhood love of art.

Memories of drawing sessions at her grandma’s house led her to pick up a pencil once again as a way of relaxing.

She was only 28 when she suffered a stroke, and was then found to have a life-threatening hole in her heart.

Artist Phillippa Gunn. Picture by Mecha Morton
Artist Phillippa Gunn. Picture by Mecha Morton

Ever since, art has been a major force in her life. Joy radiates from her paintings, and you don’t need her to tell you that creating them makes her feel good ... one look is enough.

Now she has taken the bold step of giving up her full time job to concentrate on a career as an artist.

Her pictures are bursting with colour and showcase her favourite subject - flowers.

Artist Phillippa Gunn. Picture by Mecha Morton
Artist Phillippa Gunn. Picture by Mecha Morton

“I just love vibrancy and the vivid colour. I feel good when I’m painting them,” she says. “A lot of artists go quite dark, but I love a happy sort of picture.”

Phillippa, who has two sisters Jenna and Hayley and a foster brother Ray, grew up in Acton. She went to the village primary school, and Sudbury’s All Saint’s Middle and Upper Schools.

“I used to love drawing. My grandma, who lived in Boxford, loved painting. She had a picture on her wall she had done in Portugal,” she said.

“When I used to go round there at the weekend she would put something out, like a basket of eggs, for me to sketch.

A painting by Phillippa Gunn
A painting by Phillippa Gunn

“When I started upper school I probably wasn’t the best student, and I didn’t really pursue anything.

“In year 10 we had work experience and one of the teaching assistants found me a place at Fatal Attraction hairdressers in Sudbury.

“I did two weeks there and loved it. I was definitely more of a manual kind of worker, even the junior side of it like cleaning up.

“They offered me a Saturday job, and when I finished school I went to work for them as a junior.

“I had never really thought about hairdressing as a career but I loved the place and the people I worked with, and from then on I loved hairdressing too.”

She was apprentice of the year at West Suffolk College, and twice won college competitions for the most imaginative styles.

Artist Phillippa Gunn. Picture by Mecha Morton
Artist Phillippa Gunn. Picture by Mecha Morton

“I always had a good imagination. If someone brought in a picture of a hairstyle I was good at recreating it. I would take by far the longest time to style people’s hair, trying to get things perfect.”

She had her first daughter, Honey, at 23, then moved on to work for friends who were opening a salon. Her second daughter, Betsy, was born four years later.

“I had maternity leave but decided I wasn’t going back to the salon and started doing mobile hairdressing to save on childcare.

“On August 5, 2010, I dropped Honey off at holiday club in Acton. Betsy had gone to my mum’s and I went to a friend’s house to cut her hair.

“While I was there I felt my eyes going really funny, then it passed. Then I was putting foils in her hair and was struggling to see again and had to stop.

“My friend was a nurse, and she laid me on the sofa, and by then my face had dropped, and she called an ambulance.

A painting by Phillippa
A painting by Phillippa

“I don’t remember a lot about it but when I woke up I was on the stroke ward in West Suffolk Hospital. I remember being horrified thinking I was in the geriatric ward because everyone else was so much older.

“They took me to Addenbrookes by ambulance. The following day a doctor told me I’d had two strokes.

“Three weeks before I had taken myself over to A&E because I had a really bad pain in my head, but that went off within a week.

“Because I was only 28 I was in shock and overwhelmed. My speech and eyesight had been affected and I couldn’t really stand up. I had physio and occupational therapy to get me back walking.

“They did a scan and could see one side of my heart was really enlarged and the other side was quite small.

“Then they put a camera down and could see a really large hole in my heart in the centre. One side had been doing all the work. It was allowing clots to get through.

“In a way it was a good thing I had a stroke, because I wouldn’t have lasted much longer.

“I came home in the September on crutches, and my house was set up so I could live there.

“The following January I went into Papworth for open heart surgery, where they covered the hole in my heart and got it stronger again to stop clots getting through.

“Then I started to black out, and never really felt right. My heart was never in rhythm. I was lopsided, and walked with a limp. I was really struggling.”

Looking for a new way to earn a living she opened a coffee shop in Gaol Lane, Sudbury, called The Honey Bee.

Artist Phillippa Gunn. Picture by Mecha Morton
Artist Phillippa Gunn. Picture by Mecha Morton

“I had that for two years. But it wasn’t for me. I found it too much pressure. I was still really struggling with my health,” she says.

It was then she began drawing again as a way to wind down in the evenings.

“I would take photos to copy, and would Google how to draw a portrait, and got into doing lots of sketches.

“I’d start one and before I knew it, it would be 1am. It was just a relaxing thing to do. I remembered it from doing it with my grandma.

“In the end I had a heart pacemaker fitted. Once I had that my fitness became much better. It was a life changer. They didn’t really want to do it at such a young age, but I was just finding everything so hard.”

By this time Betsy had started school, and Phillippa then got another hairdressing job.

“I was really worried what I was going to do with my days off, because I like to be busy.

“I had started to go into Acton school to do some volunteering and reading with the children. Then one day we had a Christmas fair coming up.

“One of the teachers wanted a fruit machine game with princesses and I asked if I could do it.

“From then on, anything arty I was doing full throttle, and by this time I had started to paint rather than draw at home.

One of Phillippa Gunn's paintings
One of Phillippa Gunn's paintings

“I was always doing the school’s displays. Then I started running an art and craft club twice a week. The cleaners used to hate it because I loved doing anything really messy.

“I also started going to St Gregory’s School in Sudbury doing the same thing one evening a week, and I began going in one day a week with a friend who was an art teacher at Thomas Gainsborough School.

“I started to become a bit known around the schools. I did this until 2017 when I got a full time role as a teaching assistant at Acton. I carried on working mostly alongside the head of art.

“And all this time I would go home in the evenings and paint for me. I’d be all the time online learning different techniques. I just loved it.

One of Phillippa Gunn's paintings
One of Phillippa Gunn's paintings

“I painted anything at the time like portraits of my mum and dad, but it was always flowers I would go back to. Flowers just cheer you up.

“Then lockdown happened. I would paint in the evenings ... I always need a project.

“Then I thought I’m going to paint for myself. I knew what I wanted to do ... 10 paintings. It was just a dream to be shut in my house for that amount of time.

“I’d take lots of photos of flowers and backgrounds, like the sea. We go camping at Sizewell every year and that’s where all my pictures of the sea came from.

“I loved it so much I just carried on painting. When it came to the summer holidays I had some work on show in Breakout in Long Melford and was getting some very good feedback.

“I’d go to the craft fairs - I love that. I’m a people person - I love chatting to people.

“During the summer holidays in 2021 I decided this is what I need to be doing. Since having the stroke I had been painting and drawing non-stop every weekend. My kitchen was full of stuff.

“I had a studio built - my dad and a friend built it for me - and I can now go into that and paint pretty much every day. I also had a website built.

“I also branched out a bit so I’m also doing hand-painted ceramic coasters and pots.”

A painting by Phillippa
A painting by Phillippa

Late last year Phillippa took the plunge and decided to give up her job and follow her dream of an art career.

“It feels brave - there are worrying parts of it - but if I don’t do it now I never will.

“I am not a great artist but I’m really passionate about it. And I just want a simple life.

“I’m certainly not in it for the money. I just want a happy lifestyle. Painting is a therapy.

“When people go out running or to the gym they get endorphins that make them feel good ... maybe through painting I get the same thing,” said Phillippa who lives with her daughters - now aged 16 and 12 - in Sudbury.

“Out walking I just love seeing the wildflowers along the roadside - poppies, daisies, dandelions.

“When they’re in your garden you might pull them up but when you see them on a verge they look so lovely, it’s natural beauty.

“I use a lot of splatter art to finish off my paintings to give a feeling of movement and texture, so they feel they’re in a natural form rather than stiff.

She paints in acrylics on canvas, and also has high-quality giclee prints made of her pictures.

“I’ve also started to do quite a few commissions which is really nice. People can specify what they want in the paintings but I do it in my style.

“I am determined to make this work,” she said.

For more information go online to www.phillippagunnart.co.uk. She will also be releasing a new collection of paintings in early spring.