After going through what she called the "triple-axel tragedy" of losing her father, surviving a painful breakup and facing health issues three years ago, Mari Andrew began drawing.
"I had this little watercolor set and thought, 'I should just do this,'" Andrew said. "I love the physical action of using watercolors. It's a really meditative thing. Because I was dealing with situational depression, I wanted to do something by myself that was joyful. Not watch sad movies."
Andrew, 31, began posting daily drawings on Instagram; as they grew from musings about scented candles to more personal observations, so did her following, now more than 900,000. In her graphic memoir, "Am I There Yet?," published in March, she shares the experiences that have shaped her life — the death of her father, being briefly paralyzed by Guillain-Barre syndrome while on a trip to Spain — as well as thoughts on dating, creativity and travel.
Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Andrew.
Q: You talk about the journey to adulthood like a travel adventure — there's a map, designated stops, the typical route. How does travel affect you?
A: I think travel is a good opportunity to reflect on where you are in life. When you travel, especially by yourself — which is my preferred way to travel — you're a forced observer. You're seeing other people, but you're also seeing yourself through another culture and other people's eyes. What do I really want? How am I going to make my life better? How am I going to make my life more like this or less like this? You're aware of yourself and what you're drawn to and what you like. It's a beautiful way to push yourself into growth, to look at your life and how you want to shape it.
Q: Why solo travel?
A: When you travel by yourself, you have to come up with ways out of or into situations. How am I going to approach these people? How am I going to get out of this place that I'm lost? It's a bit of a microcosm to your life. You have to make a lot of decisions for yourself. When I'm by myself, I'm experiencing the adventure but also the journey into my inner world. I really treasure that.
Q: What are your favorite art cities?
A: I was so enchanted with Berlin. It's such a hospitable city for creative people. Everyone is doing really interesting things, and they're interested in what you're doing. I just feel like the energy there is so joyful.
My favorite city in the world is Rio. It's so colorful. It's one of those cities where you walk around and everyone is outside having a dance party or playing guitar. The spirit of that is so contagious. That city definitely has a spirit that is inspiring.
Q: What kind of art do you seek out when you travel?
A: I think it's so important for any creative person to have other ways of being creative. When it becomes your job, you can forget it's your outlet. For me, that's dance. It's a way I can participate in the culture. That's how I choose to travel these days: What kind of dance do I want to do? I went to Brazil and learned the samba. I went to Grenada and learned the flamenco. It's a fun way to be a tourist.
Q: How do you capture memories from your travels?
A: I am a champion journaler. It's such a great way to get to know yourself. You're talking about what's happening right then. You're not talking for anyone but yourself. I don't draw as a way to process in the present. Usually when I draw something I've been journaling about it for a while. That's the finished piece.
Q: How do you acclimate to a place? How do you decide what you want to see or do?
A: I love an old-school guidebook. I love circling places I want to go. And right away I find my coffee shop. I might do a little research and find the cool ones, but I go there every day. I want to make the city my own. When I was in Rio for two weeks, I went to the same little bar every night. It was such an accelerated life. It was two weeks, but I felt like I'd been there for five years. The bartender knew my drink. I knew the regulars. I felt like I belonged. That's the miracle of traveling.