EVERY expat is a gambler. They punt friends and family, swimming in the sea, mangoes and winter sun, for being a player on a bigger stage; for success and fame vaster than it is here; for seeing the world through fresh eyes again; and for sensing the possibilities may be endless.
And if the gamble works, the homecoming can be even sweeter than the success abroad.
In a studio in Camperdown, artist Theresa Byrnes, 37, talks of missing the easy pleasures of home. “I want to get to Bondi and smell the salt air,” she says. “I’ve forgotten about how goddamn beautiful this country is.”
Byrnes took a huge gamble when she left Sydney and moved to New York in 1999 with just a suitcase. When the art market went cold after the September 11 terrorist attacks she just worked harder – painting every day and late into the night.
Then there is her disability. She has Friedreich’s Ataxia, a rare degenerative illness that affects one in 50,000 people. The symptoms begin at puberty and worsen until walking becomes almost impossible. Speech is impaired and life expectancy diminished.
In a wheelchair, there are practical difficulties iin negotiating a new city. But now she has a green card and New York is home. She paints in a massive studio in Manhattan’s Chelsea district and her clients include the Hollywood director M.Night Shyamalan who made The Sixth Sense and Signs. She has become a classic New York success story.
Byrnes paints her dense, colourful abstracts in a conventional manner, albeit in the vigorous, physical style of Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly. But for her performance pieces – which have also been well received by critics – she has been known to writhe in paint or hang by her ankles as someone appears to slit her throat and fake blood dirps into a saucepan below. In other performance pieces she is in a caga, trying to get out, or trapped in a shopping trolley.
She doesn’t like the tag disabled artist: “Collectors collect the works not the wheelchair.” But it has changed her perceptions.
“Being in a wheelchair distills a lot of human truth. It’s been an intellectual asset. It’s helped me understand a lot about cultural psychology – the way different cultures have different ways of dealing with vulnerability. Before anything I had to deal with human vulnerability.”
All her performances have a political message – about war, bodies or being trapped. Her eyes tell the story her body cannot – flashing with passion when talking about her ideas and her art.
“I’m the kind of person who feels a complete responsibility for the world and my role in it. Of course I have an effect. My nature is that nothing could stop me from shutting up or telling the truth.”