Life

I prefer to be seen as an artist first and foremost – my disability is always secondary

Born with cerebral palsy, Co Down artist Rachel McBride started painting as a nine-year-old with a paintbrush in her mouth. Despite using a wheelchair and having speech difficulties, Rachel hasn't let her disability hold her back. This month at an exhibition of her most personal body of work is showing at Ards Arts Centre. Jenny Lee chats to the artist, mother and businesswoman

Rachel McBride at home in her art studio with two-year old daughter Harper. Picture by Hugh Russell

“IF SOMEONE cannot communicate and interact with others are they just ‘a being’ and at what point do they become invisible or unknown to society? A frightening and disturbing thought which ultimately forced me to consider my world without the ability to speak.”

Five years ago Newtownards artist Rachel McBride wrote this statement for a solo exhibition in Melbourne, Australia when she completely lost her speech.

Born with cerebral palsy, which has affected both her limbs and speech, it was when she was forced to flee the remote island she was doing an art residency in, due to an extreme heatwave that her symptoms were exacerbated.

“As we looked for new accommodation on the mainland, I noticed a dramatic decline in my speech. An occasional stutter increased to the point where saying a simple 'hello' was an embarrassing ordeal, and a deafening silence encapsulated my world. This had a profound impact and I began viewing life, instead of living it," explains the 34-year-old.

Intensive speech therapy and a visit to a stutter specialist did enable Rachel to regain some of her voice, and since then a lot has happened, including the launch of two businesses and most importantly, the birth of her beautiful daughter Harper, now aged two.

Born with cerebral palsy, a lifelong condition which affects her speech and her ability to walk and use her hands, abstract artist Rachel McBride is determined not to be defined by her disability. Picture by Hugh Russell

Despite these positives, Rachel still finds her artistic statement is “still painfully true”, as her speech difficulties trap her in a box in which "people cannot and will not look outside of".

Rachel started painting at the age of nine holding the paintbrush in her mouth, due to poor hand control, but occupational therapists encouraged her in later years to use her hands to get more detail into her work.

After graduating from the Ulster University in Design and Communication, Rachel worked as a freelance graphic designer before turning to abstract art in 2012.

"The beauty of abstract art is that I can give my subconscious a paintbrush and portray the thoughts and emotions that I cannot dictate into words.

"By embracing my involuntary movements and bringing them into my work instead of fighting against them, and working on large-scale canvases meant I found an abstract style that lends itself to my movements and I could be expressive with paint," says Rachel who is influenced by Jackson Pollock, Kerrie Warren and Michael Bond.

Rachel McBride's large-scale painting Absolutely Floored forms the centrepiece of her solo exhibition, At A Loss for Words, currently showing at Ards Arts Centre

Having sold to private collections in The Netherlands, Switzerland, France and Barbados and exhibited internationally, most recently at WE Contemporary in Rome. This month her largest solo exhibition, At A Loss For Words, sees her exhibit 16 paintings at the Georgian Gallery in Ards Arts Centre.

Her favourite painting in the exhibition is the largest. Entitled Absolutely Floored, it invites viewers to touch the work and addresses the disability of sight loss.

"Art encompasses my entire world, to the point that I could not imagine no art or colour in my life. This actually provoked an idea, what must it be like in a world without any colour? I cannot begin to comprehend life without sight, in a world of visual impairments, how can people appreciate art? As I work in layers of paint, I have found myself on countless occasions telling people to refrain from touching the work. For the first time, I have created a painting with a 3D element of touch and invite people to [do so] delicately."

Some of Rachel's artworks. Picture by Dillon Osborne

The title also alludes to the tiredness Rachel experienced as a new mother. "As my daughter didn't sleep all night until 16 months, I have been absolutely floored by both tiredness and juggling, Harper and two businesses – hence the title, which also reflects the way I paint while sitting on the floor.

After returning from Australia, where she enjoyed a year of Melbourne coffee, she and her husband Jonathan established Haptik!, a Melbourne influenced Contemporary Art Space and Artisan Coffee Bar, with a gallery space in Newtownards.

And a year ago she opened Wu Concept, in premises above the coffee shop. The modern children’s homeware brand is inspired by a love of European design was born when she met her now business partner Karen Donaghey, an interior stylist who she commissioned her to design her daughter’s nursery.

"At times, I’ve felt immense guilt as I’ve had to leave Harper to work on various projects, including this exhibition. People seem intrigued about how I manage, and yes, it is a slightly different experience to most as I can't change nappies and therefore have always had a sidekick with me for the more physical roles.

"However, I could never be solely at home, despite my inadequacies. I want Harper and an art career, and therefore her nap times are very productive," says Rachel about juggling being an artist, mother and entrepreneur.

Although she admits her cerebral palsy makes her more tired than other people, Rachel is determined not to be defined by her disability.

"I prefer to be seen as an artist first and foremost, and my disability is always secondary. It does not define me, although I’m not naive as to believe that it has not had a dramatic impression on my artistic style."

While she hopes her art work inspired, she does not see herself as an inspiration, nor does she have advice for others with disabilities about persevering and succeeding in life.

"I think everyone has the choice to live their life how they see fit. Everyone has demons and struggles, be it physical, mental or emotional. No matter how much you battle between frustration and a deep discontentment, you must live your life and not waste time with a chip on your shoulder," she says.

:: Rachel McBride will be doing a live painting session at the Georgian Gallery in Ards Arts Centre on Thursday November 22 from 11-1pm. Her exhibition At A Loss For Words continues at the venue until November 27. See Rachelmcbride.co.uk

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