Cotswold Arts: Baby, I was born this way
- Credit: Archant
When Amber-Lauren Ballantyne-Styles gave up a promising career in acrobatic gymnastics aged just 13, she used the negativity she experienced about body image to channel into her astonishing art
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘cause baby you were born this way
Born This Way, Lady Gaga
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Size shouldn’t matter. We all know that. We also know that the reality is that all too often it does. Last year the UK diet industry was estimated to be worth £2 billion, and with heartbreaking regularity we hear of people – often teen girls – suffering eating disorders; binge-eating, purging and denying themselves the nutrients their growing bodies so desperately need. Often the root cause is bullying, and it takes a very strong character indeed to stand up to the pressures applied by peers, and an even stronger character when the person applying the pressure is an elder, someone in a position of respect and trust.
When Amber-Lauren Ballantyne-Styles was just 13 she gave up a very promising career in acrobatic gymnastics (she was part of the British team aged just 11, going on to win bronze, silver and gold medals with her trio) after her coach had constantly harangued her and told her that she needed to lose weight. Instead of giving in to the bullying, Amber, with the help and support of her mother Cherry, put her energies into developing her creativity as an artist.
Amber had always loved art as a child but, due to the pressures of schoolwork and the time she had to dedicate to gymnastics, it took a back seat. Then one day Cherry discovered one of Amber’s paintings showing an expressive but dark image of a female form and, stunned by its power and complexity, asked her to talk about it. Amber found that art was a powerful tool in helping her to express what had been happening at the time of the bullying, and soon she had built up a strong collection of paintings and drawings depicting the female form, from those with generous, fluid curves to emaciated figures with angular, tortured lines.
“I was only 13 when my coach started to bully me,” says Amber. “I was the build I needed to be for my sport, but she was telling me I was fat and I clearly wasn’t – it just came from completely out of nowhere. I was having night terrors and got to a point where I couldn’t take it any more.” Fortunately Amber’s strong relationship with her mum allowed her to talk openly to her about what she was going through, and she told Amber she didn’t have to put up with it and that she should quit.
The bond between mother and daughter is evident as I chat with them at their Oxfordshire home, near to the village of Garsington. I am made to feel so welcome as they show me around, easy conversation flowing between them as they talk about Amber’s art which is in evidence on the walls of every room, from the living room, to Cherry’s studio (she’s a professional photographer), and Amber’s art studio where she creates her large-scale paintings as well as teaching other aspiring young artists. But when I’m taken to the home gym, other framed images line the walls – those of Amber and her team during her gymnastics career. And it’s then that I realise just how incredibly successful she had been… and how astonishingly slender and athletic she was at the time of the bullying. Had it not been for her mother’s support, and Amber’s own strength of character, things could have been so very different.
“Shortly after I quit gymnastics I really wanted to find something to inspire me and get me back into the real world; I had been in a kind of bubble for five years as gymnastics had become my whole life.” She saw that Oxford & Cherwell Valley College did an Art & Design course and so she decided to enrol. A big part of the course was life drawing classes which she found really inspiring and she started to think about how she could combine her gymnastics experience with her love of art.
“I started to do ink and watercolour paintings expressing what I used to do and got great feedback for them, so we got them framed and I held my first exhibition when I was 17.” The exhibition attracted a huge amount of attention from local newspapers, as well as on TV and radio, and so Amber was encouraged to continue developing and building on her rediscovered love of art.
After concentrating on her watercolour paintings for about a year, she thought it was time to try other styles and media and moved onto acrylic paintings on large canvases, as well as more figure drawings in charcoal and Conté crayons. And though she has experimented with different styles and media, a definite thread running through all her work is that of the female form and body confidence. “I’m all for body image,” she says, “I really want to push that and make other young girls appreciate their own bodies and not be pressured into changing it for anyone. You should be happy the way you are, and proud of how you look. Everyone’s perfect.”
She firmly believes that art has helped her to overcome the traumatic time she went through, and says that she is grateful that something so good has come out of the bad. Last year she donated a painting for B-eat, the UK’s largest eating disorder charity, to help raise funds and awareness, and she continues to champion young girls and women with body image and bullying issues.
Amber is now backed by the Prince’s Trust, which she is naturally delighted about, and her energy and enthusiasm shines through when she talks about what it means to her to have this support. The Trust helped teach her how to build up a portfolio, write a business plan and turn her dreams of becoming a professional artist into a reality. She has been commissioned to paint a showcase piece for an auction this month to be held at the prestigious Castle Fine Art Gallery in London’s Mayfair, to help raise funds for the Trust, and has even had personal correspondence from Prince Charles himself, stating his delight at her success with the Trust. Impressive stuff.
Many artists these days have to be able to do their own marketing and self-promotion, which comes easier to some artists that others. One of Amber’s heroes, Damien Hirst, is of course the master of this, but she herself seems to have taken to the commercial world of art like a duck to water, producing a gorgeous range of wearable art, endorsed by none other than actress and Cotswold girl, Fiona Fullerton. She has also gained great testimonials from ‘names’ such as Sir Richard Branson, New York art critic James Skully, and Sonia Meaden (mother of TV ‘Dragon’ Deborah).
Amber is quite clearly inspired by strong women, and her work is a celebration of sisterhood and the power of the feminine. Some of her most recent work features the wonderfully flamboyant singer-songwriter-wearable-art-wearer Lady Gaga, including one fabulously dramatic large-scale canvas in acrylic with the artist’s now-trademark ultra-high-gloss resin glaze. “She’s such an inspirational woman,” says Amber. “She’s completely different; there’s no one else quite like her.”
And those words could equally be applied to the young artist Amber-Lauren Ballantyne-Styles. n