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Turning Uncertainty into Art - guest post by Karin-Therese Howell

Turning Uncertainty into Art - guest post by Karin-Therese Howell

Karin-Therese Howell, is the author and illustrator of the utterly charming book, Portraits from the Pandemic. It tells the story of a group of forest animals writing to their local newspaper, The Daily Oak, about their experiences during the pandemic.
Much like the characters in her book, Karin found comfort in creative expression, and the result is a beautiful book, full of hope and gentle encouragement. 


Here's what she had to say about her journey to writing Portraits from the Pandemic

I never thought of myself as an artist. I dabbled in art as a child, but that was the

extent of my explorations. Writing was a different story all together. I had started writing at twelve, finding immense comfort in words, in writing and reading them.

I won several awards for my poetry and some poems were published in anthologies at school. I thought I neglected this side of myself when I chose to study a science degree, majoring in mathematics; however, mathematics is poetry, it is a beautiful language that provides a framework in which to make sense of the world. 

Fast forward to the pandemic. I am a senior lecturer and convenor for the first-year mathematics students at Stellenbosch University. I love teaching in-person, I feel alive when I do it. Suddenly I am faced with the migration of our courses and teaching online. On a good day I sound like a robot and the black screen in front of me makes me feel like I am lecturing in a void.  On top of that I am the mother of two children who are suddenly home schooling.

One word. Overwhelmed. 

During the lockdown I played around with my son’s watercolour kit. I decided to make it a hobby, a creative outlet I could pour my energy into, an escape from a reality I felt was looking more and more like a sci-fi movie where the director had forgotten to circulate the script. I enrolled for an online course in watercolour and when there were small gaps in between the mounting list of responsibilities, I tried to paint. My first paintings were terrible. I had no formal training in drawing portraits or painting botanicals.

For the first time in my life, I decided that enjoyment did not have to equate performance.

I kept painting.

Once the lockdown rules eased, I enrolled for an in person watercolour course. During this time gathering with people from all different walks of life and painting side by side, made me feel that things were looking up, that normality may soon rear its head again. During one of these lessons, I painted a hare. I was stunned! Not only did he look like a hare should, he looked like I felt. I affectionately called him Harry in the headlights. I wrote a story about him, how he suffers from anxiety but is constantly striving to improve himself, to challenge himself by trying new things.

This was the start of many more characters, each one dealing with life as best they could, but always finding a silver lining. From a couple seeking counselling, to a burnt out lawyer who lost all her feathers, to a group of mothers advocating for inclusion in education, the more I painted and wrote, the more I felt connected to my own struggles, but also the struggles of those around me.

My family and friends encouraged me to compile a book, Portraits from the Pandemic. It has been one of the bravest and most rewarding things I have done. My hope is that it serves as a reminder of what we have been through the last three years, a reminder to give each other and ourselves grace.



Karin-Therese Howell is a mathematician and associate professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stellenbosch University. Portraits from the Pandemic is her first book. 

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