A pencil portrait of a sultry Marilyn Monroe is the most impressive work in artist Lee Hadwin’s collection. Her flaxen head rests on a pillow as she gazes at onlookers with parted lips. The detail is precise, down to the set of her curls and the infamous mole on her left cheek.
But Hadwin did not pore over a photograph to capture this likeness. Nor is he old enough to have met the 50s icon while she was still alive. He sketched her portrait in the course of one night, using his darkened bedroom as a studio. He was just 14 at the time and, more unbelievably still, he was asleep.
Lee Hadwin, originally from north Wales, is a self-professed “sleepwalking artist”. Now 40, he has been sketching and painting in his sleep since he was a young child. His portfolio bursts with abstract skylines, shapes and patterns in an array of hues and an impressive collection of portraits – all of which he scribbled while unconscious. This year has seen the launch of his first solo UK exhibition at RISE Gallery in Croydon.
“When I was four or five I would get up and use my school crayons to draw on the walls and on bits of paper that were to hand,” Hadwin says. “At that time my parents didn’t take much notice, because a lot of kids sleepwalk. But it was something I never grew out of.”
As Hadwin got older, the childlike mess of shapes and colour grew into pieces that could be comfortably labelled “art”. The first to emerge was a series of “fairies”, in which he depicts arching female bodies adorned with tattered wings. Next was a series of Monroe portraits, which have since been sold to The Marilyn Monroe Museum in Hollywood for a four-figure sum.
“I don’t have any connection to my drawings because, when I wake up, I can’t remember doing them,” Hadwin explains. “But I try to forge connections. Growing up I went to New York and was fascinated with skylines, so I can see where the lines like buildings may be from. Then, thinking about the ones with circles, I’m very much into the universe and space.”
Despite his capabilities while asleep, Hadwin boasts no talent for painting during his waking hours. And until an international appetite for his work began to grow, he had no engagement with the professional art world either. His strange ability has baffled sleep clinics and art critics alike.
“When I first went to the doctor, it was the early 80s. Back then the medical world was a lot different, so there wasn’t much interest from doctors,” he says. “But in the year 2000, when I went to the Edinburgh Sleep Clinic, that’s when medics became fascinated. It’s not so unusual that I’m drawing at night. It’s the fact that I can’t draw in a conscious state that they’re interested in.”
What is more, Hadwin never achieved more than a ‘D’ in art at school: “I’ve been in a number of documentaries and then you’re under real scrutiny. One team, without me knowing, went to all my teachers, and got my school reports from them. Obviously they vouched for me that I was no good at art in school”.
Of course, Hadwin’s story has often been met with scepticism. But though his experience with sleep clinics has proved that the phenomenon is no façade, the professional art world has not always been so receptive.
“When I first hit the media a critical response was ‘oh he’s just a doodler’. But I think, because of the exhibitions, and the works I’ve sold, critics are beginning to take me seriously,” he says. “I think the establishment can be very old-fashioned – it takes time to break through that. In a way you have to earn your place.”
With the art world finally coming around, Hadwin thought it the perfect time to launch a UK exhibition, which he has called Hypnos.
“I’m glad Kevin [Zuchowski-Morrison, RISE Gallery’s owner] chose Croydon [to open RISE] because of what happened a few years ago with the riots. Facilities like this are vital for regeneration,” Hadwin says. “It will extend this kind of culture beyond the north of the river. I would love to do more work here.”
Though more exhibitions are in the pipeline, Hadwin is coy when talking about future plans – as you might be when your career relies on the activities of your subconscious: “I guess we’ll just wait and see …”, he says simply.