Unable to work in Chemical Valley, young mom now paints it

Sarnia artist Christina Graham. Troy Shantz

Tara Jeffrey

Christina Graham had it all figured out.

After graduating from Lambton College’s CPET program (Chemical Production & Power Engineering) and completing two co-op placements in the plants, she was eager to start a career as an operator in Sarnia.

“Three months after graduation, I had my son. Then ten days after having him, I was bedridden,” said the 26-year-old mother of two. “I was in so much pain; I couldn’t move, couldn’t open any joints.”

Graham was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis — triggered by pregnancy – and the news shattering her career dream.

“That was kind of a low point for me,” she said. “I thought, ‘Now I can’t even open a valve or climb a tower.’”

Struggling to find her path, Graham picked up a paintbrush and returned to her love of creating.

She began painting images of Sarnia’s industrial landscape — smoke stacks, cooling towers and scenes from complex units inside the refineries that make up what’s known as Chemical Valley.

“I remember being on my co-op and I stood at the top of one of the towers and looked down, and I was amazed,” said Graham. “People think it’s so ugly, but it was beautiful.

“I can’t believe that we built that, you know?”

Graham’s refinery paintings were a hit, with custom requests pouring in from all over the valley, from birthday to retirement gifts.

“People seem to love them; they’ve gone really well,” she said. “I incorporate bright colours and beautiful skies.”

Things were turning around for Graham, but last year her health suffered an unimaginable blow.

The immunosuppressants she’d been taking for the arthritis were making her sick, and then one day, her heart stopped.

“Long story short, I was diagnosed with Brugada Syndrome,” she said of a genetic condition that results in abnormal electrical activity in the heart.

“Your heart beats erratically, and fevers can bring it about, which is what happened to me. The lower chambers beat too fast and no blood gets anywhere and you lose consciousness.”

Because of her young age, the other health complications and high risk of sudden cardiac arrest, doctors installed a heart defibrillator in her chest.

“I have come to terms with the fact that I may not be an operator anymore — but painting has really helped my level of dealing with all of this,” said Graham.

“Sometimes, I can’t be very precise with lettering, etc., so you’ll notice a lot of my paintings are messy and chaotic, with a more abstract look.”

Art, she said, is therapy.

“My family and I notice the days that I paint and create, and the days that I don’t,” she said, noting people often ask why her pieces are so reasonably priced. “Honestly, it’s because I just want to paint.”

Her work includes other popular images including the Blue Water Bridge and Sarnia Animal Farm, along with custom work for just about anything.

A variety of Graham’s work is available at Ingonish Trading Co. in Sarnia and Lake Life Studio in Camlachie.

On Saturday, Nov. 25, she’ll join other local artists at the Love Local Pop Up Shop at JadyBaby’s store at 914 Murphy Road, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. She also runs a Facebook page called Christina Graham Artwork.

“I used to struggle with finding my niche. I thought I had to pick something specific and I never could. But it will come to you when it comes to you,” she said, adding not everyone is positive about her Chemical Valley pieces.

“Some people ask, ‘Why would you paint something so harmful?’ But I don’t find them ugly and I like to give my perspective to others.

“I found my niche,” she said. “Painting things that aren’t typically attractive, and making them beautiful.”