Theresa Byrnes
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The Sydney Morning Herald


Theresa’s naked ambition: live a robust life


Strong in spirit. . . artist Theresa Byrnes approaches life with vigour despite the restrictions imposed by a rare degenerative illness. Photograph by PATRICK CUMMINS

Artist Theresa Byrnes stretches out naked on the cover of her book. Her long, slim limbs and dark good looks suggest a fashion modeL

In her studio, she is surrounded with the tools of her trade — the paintbrushes, canvases, her paint- splattered wheelchair.

Byrnes is a woman with a rare energy and candour — and a rare degenerative illness.

Byrnes has received a Young Australian of the Year Award, and has established a foundation for developing a cure for FA, a disease of the nervous system that slowly deprives sufferers of the use of their legs, arms, sight and hearing. Life expectancy for FA sufferers, which affects about one in 50,000 people, is between 40 and 50 years.

Byrnes does not get depressed by her illness — only at her treatment by others. When her symptoms began as a teenager and she became clumsy and started to stagger she recalls how people would make cruel remarks or assume she was drunk. She finds Sydney far less accommodating of disability than New York.

“I was just accepted there, and there were disabled toilets in clubs and everywhere,” she said.

She does not fear for the future and accepts the reality of an early death. “The only thing I fear is complacency, not FA. Fear has nothing to do with your body; it has everything to do with your approach to life.”