How this Aussie went from 'meth-head' to a successful artist

·Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
·5-min read

Content warning: this article discusses mental illness and suicide.

Australian painter Chris Riley selling his art at a market stall. Photo: supplied.
Chris at one of his first market stalls in Surfers Paradise in Queensland. Photo: supplied.

Chris Riley wasn't a happy-go-lucky child; far from it. He grew up with a speech impediment and reading difficulties in a small NSW country town called Guyra. His classmates teased and bullied him, and his reading problem kept him behind in his studies.

"I always felt like I was the weirdo kid,” Chris tells Yahoo Lifestyle. "I'd cry myself to sleep because I was too scared to kill myself. That's a terrible thing for a child to feel."

Nothing improved in high school and Chris's depression worsened. He found solace in art but with his reading and writing problems unaddressed, he failed most subjects in Year 12 — including art. His hopes of going to university were out of reach and he ended up getting a job in automotive upholstery.

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Suddenly homeless

At 19, Chris fell in with a bad crowd of drug users and car thieves, and things turned toxic, quickly. One day, everything Chris owned was stolen and his family cut him off, essentially leaving him homeless.

"In four weeks, I went from being an unhappy kid with a dog to having nowhere to live and no possessions at all, sleeping at different friends' places or at the train station. My parents even turned me away," he recalls.

Chris was taken in by a family friend who he thinks likely saved his life and, eventually, his father made contact and asked him to come home. He worked for his dad for six months before moving to Brisbane where he got a job in a truck detailing shop.

Even though Chris's life was becoming more stable and he'd been promoted to workshop manager, he was still regularly using drugs, particularly ice. 

"That job kept me out of trouble. Most nights I’d be smoking ice but I'd still get up in the morning and go to work where everyone was maintaining a level of normality,” he says.

Australian painter Chris Riley at a music festival in 2014. Photo: supplied.
Chris Riley (at a music festival in 2014) has gone from a 'down-and-out meth-head' to a successful artist. Photo: supplied.

At 26, things began to change for Chris when he met his wife, Tracy, at a music festival. It was a 'love at first sight' moment and he stopped smoking ice, vowing to work hard ahead of their 2016 wedding.

At the truck shop, Chris taught himself how to spray paint which rekindled his love of art. When the couple moved into a new place together, Chris decided to paint something to brighten it up. From then on, he was hooked, painting every night while also putting in 55 to 60 hours a week in the truck shop.

Chris and Tracy soon took the plunge and started trying to sell his paintings at the local weekend markets, but it didn't quite work out and funds began to dwindle.

"We threw everything into it. All the money we had went into art supplies and a website," Chris recalls.

"We spent about $100,000 in the first 12 months trying to make art happen for us. We did all the trade shows. We didn't make a single sale."

Australian painter Chris Riley on his wedding day in 2016. Photo: supplied.
Chris and his wife Tracy on their wedding day in 2016. Photo: supplied.

Highs and lows

The pair nearly gave up but hung in there and after eighteen months — and some life-changing advice from Business Blueprint — things began to look up once again.

"Business Blueprint is an organisation founded by business coach, Dale Beaumont, that helps young entrepreneurs get their businesses up and running," Chris explains.

He joined in November 2019 and, on Dales' advice, he and Tracy moved into a spare room at his sister's house to save money. They began doing three to four markets a week and soon made enough to rent a studio space and, later, the adjoining gallery space.

Chris's paintings began to sell for good money, but by the following February, after surviving the Covid lockdowns of 2020, they almost lost everything once again. This time, they'd stretched themselves too thin by chasing ideas outside the art sphere, such as an idea for an app, which began eating all their cash.

Australian painter Chris Riley seated while painting native flowers. Photo: supplied.
Today, Chris works out of a studio/gallery space in Brisbane. Photo: supplied.

"Dale made me realise that it was important to put all my energy into the thing that I was good at rather than being distracted along the way. It was an eye-opener. I was good at something," Chris says.

"That voice I'd had in my head my whole life saying, 'You’re not good enough,' was being told it was wrong."

Chris and Tracy are now back on track and doing better than ever, thanks to a combination of savvy business advice and a whole lot of perseverance. 

"I've gone from being a down-and-out meth-head to a successful artist. I've conquered a business that people say is really hard to conquer and I feel valuable for the first time in my life. I've learned the importance of pushing through to get to somewhere better."

Mental health support for yourself or a loved one can be found by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, Mensline on 1300 789 978, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.

Online support is available via Beyond Blue.

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