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By Dino Vlachos

“I cannot for the life of me get a good photo of this piece,” Stef Hodgson captioned an Instagram photo in November last year.

“So, close your eyes and imagine sunshine yellow paper, bright white and dense black,” Hodgson instructed her almost 1000 Instagram followers.

The piece was a spiral mandala painted over many painstaking hours. The mandala resembles an underwater flower, with layers of art nouveau-esque leaves and cinnamon roll spirals blossoming from a white centre.

“I wanted to create a ‘happiness mandala’ and I think I kind of love it,” she wrote.


But the mandala wasn’t an easy task for Hodgson.

Since she was a little girl, Hodgson has struggled with chronic illnesses that stopped her from enjoying life.

But that’s changing for Stef and her art. A new art exhibition is coming to Melbourne for artists with chronic illnesses, where Hodgson’s mandalas will be featured.

Originating in India several thousand years ago, mandala artwork melds colourful patterns and deep religious symbolism to explore the wholeness of the universe.

However, as they got imported to the West, the artwork shed its religious meaning. To many, it’s become a symbol for the cosmos. To others, they’re a pretty piece of art.

For Hodgson, mandalas represent a hard-won battle with her body. The 23-year old Melburnian has been living with chronic fatigue syndrome for as long as she can remember. This means work of any kind leaves her drained, regardless of how much rest she gets.

At times, Hodgson can only manage ten minutes of work a day.

“I struggled to interact with the world in a way that works for me,” said Hodgson.

Her struggles with fatigue got too much: Stef had to drop out of university; couldn’t find a job that would work around her illness; and was left alone at home most days.

“Boredom is the enemy,” Hodgson said about the worst days stuck at home.

It was only after flicking blankly through a magazine, she found her creative outlet: mandalas. So she started drawing mandalas whenever she could muster the energy.

“When I feel crappy I can do mandalas. When I feel good, I can do mandalas,” Hodgson said.

“Your ability to create shouldn’t be limited by your energy levels.”

In fact, Hodgson believes she wouldn’t be an artist without her chronic illness. Mandalas are not for the faint of heart: it can take Hodgson between 4 and 10 hours to make one, depending on the size. Like any skill, patience is something taught. And her chronic fatigue has been her teacher.

“I can now walk half an hour [without feeling tired]. It took me four years just to get to this point.”

According to Hodgson, the world can still be hostile for people who can’t work like everyone else.

“I was sick of trying to convince others to let me get a foot in the door.” So instead, she started a business. “I’m gonna make my own door, and let other people like me into it!” Hodgson joked.

Founded in 2018, Couch Empire aims to help artists with chronic illnesses make money from their art, regardless of their energy levels.

In March of this year, Couch Empire will be hosting their first event: an art exhibit, bringing together five artists with chronic illnesses to display their work. The proceeds will go towards helping the artists become financially sustainable.

“One of the great things about art is that you have no idea who the artist is,” she said. So while chronic illnesses still carry a stigma, Hodgson hopes that this exhibit will show that anyone can make a contribution, regardless of how they did it.