Painting Through the Darkness

By: Alexi Pyles, Phoenix Fellow – Supportive Programming


As soon as I could hold a pencil, I started to draw. I replicated almost everything I saw in my environment onto paper: cups, chairs, rooms, trees, pencils, and other objects. Later, I added shading to show form, shape, and light. I loved seeing the pencil dust along the sides of my hands, which meant that I had been drawing a lot. My mother is also an artist, and I tried to be just as good as her. Drawing was a mindless and relaxing pastime, and I loved every minute. I didn’t understand the healing part of art until I was in my teens. 

Being a teenager was hard and the added challenge of being burn survivor made life seem almost impossible. Friends formed cliques; peers became judgmental; pubescent hormones kicked in, and boys began choosing dates. I didn’t fit in. I felt excluded, like a pariah. I wanted to be the same person as I was as a kid, and growing up was not on my agenda. 


Robotive Hand (pen and ink on paper)
An interpretation of how I felt living with burns when I was in high school, the robotics hand represents being put together again piece by piece after each surgery.


Almost every night, I'd go home feeling lonely. My peers would try to reach out to me, but I didn't reach back to engage with them. A part of me felt that they would just leave me again for their new friends, so why even try? I'd plug into my headphones and drown out the world. 

I tried not to attach everything to my burn injuries, but I realized they were what was holding me back. Lurking in my mind were the emotions surrounding my injury, and as an adopted child, there was unresolved conflict with my birth parents. The anger associated with these issues was suppressed, and without really understanding why, I was sad and unable to connect with the world. 


As a teenager, my drawings became more intricate and morbid as I drew bones, anatomical hearts, and blood being exposed. Shading became a technique used to viciously darken everything. Many of my drawings were of birds flying away or robot hands holding a human heart. I realized that the images depicted a struggle for survival and persistence. These drawings represented me: I wanted to be a bird flying away. 

In addition to drawing, these themes would appear in my writing. I wrote about drowning in the ocean when a large hand from above grabbed me and pulled me ashore. I'd fight the help and let myself drown, knowing that giving up was the path I chose. But then I'd hear thoughts in my head telling me to grab the hand and live, that it will take me to freedom. 

As these dark thoughts swirled in my mind, I couldn’t control them unless I drew them on paper. I started going to support groups as a teenager, connecting with others like me. While I shared as much as I could, it was challenging because I believed that sharing these thoughts would be like plunging myself into even deeper water. Most of my thoughts remained on paper.


Bird Pointillism (pen and ink on paper)
This pointillism piece has hundred of dots of different seizes and clusters, some connection to each other and some standing alone. Similarly, some people connect in groups, and some are content being alone. The burn, a symbol of peace and freedom, represents my challenges of feeling connected with others and finding peace in being alone.


I began painting when I was in college, which was a new medium for me. As a child, I didn’t understand colors and made almost every art project brown because I would blend all of the colors together, thinking they would make a rainbow. In my sophomore year in college, I took a painting class and discovered acrylic paint, which can be built up, layer upon layer, without making it brown. I was intrigued by this phenomenon and found colors to be expressive. I was happy...a word I rarely used as a child. 

Throughout college, I spent hours in the art room painting away my feelings. One of my projects was to listen to a song and paint the feelings that came from the song. The song I chose was called “Flares” by The Script. I painted a deep yellow-red sun setting behind mountains and a deep purple ocean in the foreground. The painting was not “pretty,” and showed that at the days’ end, the darkness still overtook my life. Yet, the bright colors that shone through represented the promise of a new beginning in the distance. 


And a new beginning was on the horizon. The more comfortable I became with painting, the more colors I used. I was able to create eight shades of blue, red, and green—almost every color! The opportunities were endless. Life wasn't just black and white, like pencil drawings. I was able to manipulate colors to recreate the things I saw instead of just shading them. My favorite paintings were of landscapes. They always took the longest to paint, but I loved spending time detailing every section, the foreground, middle ground, and background. I could lose myself in every painting and get away from reality for a little while. 

Ironically, painting the hours away helped me come out of my shell. Art is still part of my journey, and I love to paint and sketch when I can. 


Alexi Pyles received burns on her neck and check when she was 6 months old. Her birth parents abandoned her at an orphanage in Xiamen, China, hoping that someone would provide treatment. Cathy Pyles adopted Alexi in 1996 and brought her to the United States where she fought for her daughter to receive treatment after surgeons refused, saying it would be “cosmetic.” Alexi completed her treatment with the support of the Children’s Burn Foundation. She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in visual arts from Bethany College, West Virginia, and is currently pursuing a master’s in counseling with an option in rehabilitation counseling at California State University of Los Angeles. She works with young teens in a competitive gynmastics program and with at-risk adolescents at a rehabilitation facility.