North-East talent blossoms into successful artist

Ailsa Victoria Miller is an artist from North East England. She creates beautiful original botanical pastel drawings, prints and gifts that are inspired by the vivid colours of nature. Ailsa’s entrepreneurial journey is an extraordinary one, having overcome enormous personal challenges and obstacles to make a living from doing something that brings her joy. This month we chatted to Ailsa to talk about how art has shaped her life, what is the driving force behind her work, and how the Captured programme helped her to develop the skills and confidence she needed to successfully run her own business.

Ailsa’s early experience of art almost set her back before she began. After completing her Art GCSE, Ailsa moved onto Art A-Level, but despite her indisputable talent, she didn’t pass, and she was subsequently told by a teacher that she would never have a career in art:

“Students were paired with a teacher to review their grades and I was paired up with a French teacher who didn’t know anything about art – and rather than being given advice on what to do next, they simply said to me ‘well, that’s the end of art for you’. I was written off, just like that, and it was incredibly disheartening.”

However, Ailsa’s strength and fight was apparent even back then. One of her friends was going to study at North Tyneside College and Ailsa spontaneously applied for a place on a BTEC National course:

“I decided to go for it completely on a whim, though I didn’t expect anything would come of it. But I went along for an interview with my portfolio – and I got an unconditional offer!”

After completing her BTEC and HND, Ailsa went on to do a degree in Fashion and Printed Textiles at Northumbria University, but it was while she was preparing for its final year show in London in 2001 that Ailsa’s health took a turn:

“I was kneeling down to do the hem of a dress and I felt something ‘squish’ to the side of my knee. I hobbled and limped my way through it, but it only got worse, and my hands became badly affected too, as well as all the joints down my left side. I was sent to the hospital, where I was tested for all sorts, and it turned out to be inflammatory arthritis – I was only in my 20s. I knew I had to change career. The fashion industry is highly physical and stressful, and I needed to think practically – I couldn’t do art when my hands were affected and so I got an office job, something where I was sitting down, and I presumed that this would be my career from here on out.”

Ailsa was put on very strong medication to control her arthritis, which meant that she had to be monitored at the hospital every two weeks, as well as having to have her knee drained and regular steroid injections. However, although Ailsa felt that she was starting to live a normal life by having an office job, it unfortunately became a difficult and stressful place to work:

“I just went into myself and became like a zombie, feeling completely numb, until eventually I had to leave – and I just went down completely. This combined with a stressful home environment became too much. I was living with my parents and my sister, who is bedridden with severe M.E., and I became a carer of sorts too, even though I was struggling with my own health. As a family, we were often sleep deprived, as my sister usually slept through the day and was awake with pain through the night. I fell apart, lost all of my confidence, thinking that it was impossible to work in art or in an office job, and I feared I’d never work again. I was depressed, anxious, reclusive, and I felt utterly hopeless. I didn’t know what to do.”

Ailsa describes this period of her life as a time when she could only see the negative in everything, unable to process emotions. As her arthritis became manageable she took steps to improve her wellbeing, with extensive therapy and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). Ailsa felt stuck for a very long time, feeling that she might always be in this situation, unable to carry out normal everyday tasks – until one day, when she found inspiration in the most surprising of places:

“To get me out of the house, my Mam would insist that I went for a walk around the block with her each day. I didn’t want to, but as I started to feel a bit better I also started to notice nature; the vibrancy and colour of the flowers lifted me and I began to look at the world a bit differently. One cold and sunny October day I noticed the colours looking particularly vibrant, so I took a camera along with me and started photographing the leaves and the berries, and I began to wonder whether I would be able to draw them. I hadn’t had the mental capacity to focus for such a long time, so it was very daunting, but I started small, just working on A4, and bringing the photos to life with pastels made me feel uplifted.”   

Ailsa worked on her art at the kitchen table and visitors started to comment on how much they loved the colours and how the pictures made them feel – warm, happy, comforted – and Ailsa felt excited that her art was not only having a positive effect on herself, but how it could affect and transform other people’s moods too. Ailsa says she never thought this could be a job, but a family friend, David, had heard Ailsa had been unwell and invited her out, and as their friendship developed, he began to photograph Ailsa’s portfolio.

“David used these photos and had them printed on various products, such as notebooks and mugs, showing me what I could create. He opened my eyes to the possibility of actually making money from my art, and gave me the push to give it a go. He helped me to order products and I went on a social media course to learn how to promote myself a bit, and suddenly it was really happening!”

Ailsa launched her business and website in 2015 and joined the Inspire network, and this in turn led her to the Captured programme. Devised by Newcastle University, Captured is one of the successful proposals in a competition held by UKCES (UK Commission for Employment and Skills), and the programme is based on the premise that connecting small business owners with managers from larger organisations can provide mutual benefit at both an individual and business level. Ailsa says:

“Captured runs as four half-day workshops, and the experience was invaluable to me. I’d studied art, but I didn’t have a clue about the business side of things. I’m not a ‘business person’, or at least I didn’t think I was, but what the Captured course taught me was that I actually enjoy business! I thought I needed to be really academic, but the mentors got rid of that stigma and it was much less intimidating than I had imagined. They broke down the barriers and explained the business terminology, and helped me to realise that you don’t need to be a person in a fancy suit to successfully run a company.”

“There are two pieces of advice from Captured that really stood out for me. The first was that you will try lots of things and they won’t work – but this is okay, and all part of the development process, and it’s not a sign that you’re failing. The other was ‘look from the outside in’ – so instead of just focusing on the art I was creating and then thinking about selling it afterwards, I turned this around to work backwards. I began to think of the events I would be selling at, and what people wanted, and now take these factors into consideration in the work I am creating.”

Ailsa sells her original work at arts events around the North East of England, as well as through her own website, and has plans to develop the business in the near future – though she says she never imagined she would be in this position:

“It’s amazing to think how far I’ve come, that there was once a time where I didn’t want to leave the house, and now here I am – working at big arts events in beautiful venues. But my experience is also my motivation too – I want to be able to share the power of how colour can transform how you feel, and to bring joy into other people’s lives. And not only am I an artist, but I’ve learnt how to be a business person too – Captured gave me that assurance, and I wouldn’t be planning to go and sell at bigger events without that confidence. Art has changed me – and that family friend, David, is now my husband! So my work really has changed every aspect of my life! My journey so far has taught me that you are capable of much more than you think you are, and it’s exciting to think of what I’m capable of next.”

To view more of Ailsa’s collection, please visit