Theresa Byrnes
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Artist Theresa Byrnes seems to revel in the hardships she's faced. Now the author of an autobiography certain to shock and inspire others, she talks to Pamela Wilson

Spare the pity. Theresa Byrnes is one babe who doesn't want it. All of her adult life, the diminutive artist has fervently fought against becoming an "against all odds" cliché. Even her closest friends have had to be straightened out when arguing truisms such as "greatness comes from suffering".

As a result, the moment one meets Byrnes any urge to offer pity evaporates.

It is obvious she sees beauty, not despair, in her own tragedy.

Aged 30 and beautiful, Byrnes has the rare fatal disease Friedreichs Ataxia (FA) and is confined to a wheelchair.

She is also a successful painter locally and internationally, an Australia Day ambassador, a recipient of a Young Australian of the Year award and head of a foundation committed to funding medical research.

But mostly, she is a straight-talker.

So, our conversation moves straight on to topics of bondage, sexual healing and world travels, all of which are documented in detail in her candid autobiography, The Divine Mistake.

But while the naughty bits, which her mum thinks she has handled very tastefully, make good reading, there is far more to the Theresa Byrnes story than tantalising tales of sexual exploits, although Brynes stresses she wants to debunk the myth people in wheelchairs don't have sex.

She says her motivation to write her autobiography was two-fold. She didn't "want to bring any more crap in the world", nor did she want to be put on a pedestal.

Instead, she hopes through her literary creativity she can reach people by helping them find inspiration within themselves.

She says the book is not so much about living with a degenerative disease as it about following one's dreams, female painters, what it means to be Australian, relationships and hard core subjects such as the plight of Aborigines.

"To bring about something new and fresh and honest you have to really understand life. So writing was a very personal way unravelling the whole meaning of my existence." she says.

"I hate the notion of that ‘against all odds' crap just because I'm in a wheelchair. I mean, get over it. Basically there is nothing in my life that would be different [without FA]. It hasn't shaped my life at all.

"I think that for a lot of people the book will be an inspiration, but that is something that makes me cringe. I think people have to recognise their own motivation for finding inspiration."

She says writing the autobiography was cathartic and admits being reduced to tears a number of times.

But the tears she shed were not of sadness. She explains they were tears of joy at discovering beauty in FA and in the tragedy of it because it is a part of her.

Byrnes came to terms with FA, an inherited disease of the nervous system, long ago and says it is something she has never found hard to live with.

Having never considered herself disabled, she says she simply adjusts each time the FA steals a little of her mobility.

It is not surprising then that she doesn't fear the early death that FA may bring or the effects it may have on her body in the future. In fact, she is actually looking forward to the discipline the disease will force upon her

"I don't fear death because I'm so grateful of the life I've had. If it gets to a stage where I can't [move] it might be a relief because I might be able to focus solely on my creativity," she says.

"If I get to a stage where I can't paint, can't walk, can barely breathe or eat, I will write. My creative vision doesn't have anything to do with the mobility of my body."

"But I don't waste energy worrying about what-ifs. It is a very individual disease and I could be dead in 10 years or still as I am now."

Fiercely independent, the only thing Byrnes does fear is becoming reliant on anyone else. But she reckons if she has five "gorgeous male slaves" to help, that might make it easier to handle.

To say hers is a passionate life is an understatement. It is with a wild, intuitive and explosive energy she applies herself to everything including painting, the gym, writing, fund-raising, relationships and the indigenous culture.

An abstract expressionist, she paints fast and furiously and aims to one day hire an aircraft hangar in which to hurl paint while rigged to a flying fox.

"I paint beyond limitations. Painting to me is practical ontology. It's unravelling the meaning of existence," she explains.

It was her intuition that led Byrnes to Arnhem Land 10 years ago, where she was adopted by an Aboriginal family. Having forged a close bond with the indigenous populace, she regularly visits her family in the Outback to sleep under the stars and learn from them.

Back in the city, she is part of the movement rallying for reconciliation. "I hope this book will make people a little more open-minded about what is worth celebrating, and it's not who wins in long-distance running," she says. "We can't even apologise to the indigenous people. It's all a crock."

There is one thing Byrnes admits she has so far failed in throughout her life; love. But after falling in love a number of times and exploring many different relationships, she is at least certain about what she doesn't want. Marriage! Been there, done that, didn't work, never will.

As someone who craves solitude, she admits she is probably a hard person to be with. So, she has come up with the perfect solution: "I think I need two husbands.

"It would be nice to have a partner for three years or so [ I move on, babe," she quips.

"I'm really questioning the whole idea of a normal relationship. I don't want normal. Whenever I have gone to get a normal relationship, it hasn't been normal at all."

Now the autobiography is complete, this modern gypsy is desperate to take flight again. Unable to live in any place for too long, Byrnes is soon returning to Arnhem Land to visit her family after the deaths of two relatives. From there she will fly to what she considers her third home, the US, to enjoy the New York summer.

Between moves she will work on a number of projects she has already started. There is another book to be written, the possibility of co-writing a screenplay for a movie based on her autobiography and maybe even a career change into film.

And, of course, there is her unquenchable desire to paint.

"I'm itching to get started on my new series of work. I already have the concept in my head and I just can't wait to dive into it."

If there is one thing we can learn from Byrnes, it's that life is for enjoying, no matter what it throws at us. She sums up her enthusiasm in six words: "I have the most incredible life."

The Divine Mistake by Theresa Byrnes (Pan MacMillan), $25. The book release coincides with the launch of her latest exhibition at Wagner Art Gallery on November 9. Exhibition closes November 18.

The Divine Mistake: An Autobiography
By Theresa Byrnes
Now out of print; Last copies available
$50 (shipping $5)

Available as an
Amazon Kindle Book


Back Jacket

November 6, 1999 - The Daily Telegraph - Wired For Life by Pamela Wilson

January 2, 2000 - The Sun Herald - Divine Inspiration by Matt Condon

January 24, 2000 - Who Magazine - Review by Louisa Ermelino

March 2000 - Australian Book Review - Review by Nita Kambouris


This story appeared in Big Night Out 3:

Click to view a larger image.

Published by Penguin Books 2002


Theresa Byrnes
a monograph
published by Charta books
OUT 2011

Memoir in progress (covering 2000-2009)

literary agent:
Fiona Inglis
Curtis Brown
Level 1, 2 Boundary Street
Paddington NSW 2021

Tel: (02) 9331 5301/9361 6161

Fax: (02) 9360 3935

Reviews by Theresa Byrnes

London Daily Mirror
Joyce Pensato’s Batman Returns

“. . the dark and powerful soul of what we deem innocent, haunts.”

London Daily Mirror
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

London Daily Mirror
Lynda Benglis

London Daily Mirror
Helen Frankenthaler

“Her . . painting shimmers like it is listening.”

London Daily Mirror
Ghada Amer

London Daily Mirror
Boris Lurie

London Daily Mirror

THERESA BYRNES    project space SUFFER    616 E 9th St (between B & C) NYC 10009    MAIL@THERESABYRNES.COM