Painting is my everything but in my 20s I’d lost sight of that. I was busy enjoying work as a subeditor and designer and when I wasn't working, I was running. I always loved sports but running was never my thing until then. To find in my 20s I could run for the pure joy of it - it wasn't all about winning as the schooling system had drummed into me - was a revelation. When I look back now, I wonder how differently I would have coped with my mental health had I known that in my teens.
After my diagnosis, running was the one thing that helped me to cope. It fuelled my half-marathon journey. But this blog isn’t about running. If MS had behaved differently perhaps it would have been but instead a year into my journey, I found myself on a 21km-to-couch journey overnight. I remember coming home from hospital barely able to do anything because of the pain but yet there I was with a paintbrush in my hand. The urge to paint was so overwhelming and when I did it was like the world didn’t just make sense again, it made more sense than it had ever made.
I was so consumed with mobility loss and pain that I never expected MS to also threaten my art a year later. This time it was via an even worse type of pain and muscle tightness in my neck, shoulders, and face, leading to a restricted range of motion in my right arm. I went from easily painting for 8 hours a day to barely managing 30 minutes. Like running, I was watching art fade out of my life and I couldn’t bear to lose the one thing that was helping me to cope, to feel alive.
That’s when I got a message from the organisers of RTE’s Big Life Fix. They’d read my blog and wanted to put me forward as a potential for the show. I never believed I’d actually end up on the show and when I was told I’d been selected I considered dropping out as I didn’t see myself as deserving enough. I guess, in a strange way, it was hard for me to accept just how much MS was limiting me and admit that I needed their help.
The devices they designed have been a game-changer and there are never enough ‘Thank yous!’. Because I mostly paint in watercolours, they focused on designing something that meant I didn’t have to keep looking down at a page, which was causing me additional pain. Essentially, by placing an iPad at face level and tilting it towards my artwork, it meant I could paint as normal but by looking at the screen instead and maintaining a healthy posture less likely to aggravate my muscles.
They also hooked up a drawing robot with my iPad so that on days I wasn’t well enough to even make it to the desk, I could do all my sketching and typography from the comfort of the couch and the robot would draw a hard copy for me when I was feeling up to adding paint. The added benefit of doing my typography on the iPad is that many apps have a setting that allows you to smooth out the MS hand jitter that usually threatens to ruin your lovely writing.
I’m an artist, which, as any painter knows isn’t a label we readily bestow on ourselves as much as we yearn for it. But we all should - what are we waiting for? I cherish every minute spent painting now. It’s the one time I feel completely myself and sure of my place in the world.
From designing wedding invitations to custom illustrations and a sell-out range of Christmas cards last year (100% of the proceeds of which went to MS Ireland), I find I rarely have an art-free moment in my life now and that is exactly how I like it.
As Pablo Picasso said: “Illness can sometimes heal us.” I don’t love having MS and I look back on periods of time with this disease and wonder how I survived but the point is I did. I did because of my art. I did because when I pick up that paint brush, I am free, I am who I was always meant to be.
- We are all artistic. It’s all about the process, so why not give it a go? To get started, check out Paintclub.ie. They are an amazing Irish company doing online painting tutorials for people of all abilities and you will be blown away by how much fun you’ll have.
- If you’re struggling using an easel then lie the canvas flat on a table or prop it against some books for a gentler tilt that’s easier on the arm.
- Make your own version of my BLF iPad stand by using your phone or tablet with a flexi stand. Position it at face level and then switch on your front-facing camera to view your artwork.
- This device deserves a drumroll. The Saebo Zero-Gravity Mobile Arm Support (MAS) is life changing if you struggle with arm problems. You can read more about it here.
Have you got any tips of your own? Share them in the comments and join me on my blog Creatively Rewired where I’ll soon be sharing more of my artwork and continuing the discussion.