THE SUN HERALD
She has a fatal, debilitating disease. But it would take more than that to stop
Theresa Byrnes living life at full speed. By Matt Condon.
Photograph by Steve Baccon
Artist Theresa Byrnes has just got back from the garage where a mechanic
performed some urgent repairs on her wheelchair.
She moves briskly from side to side to demonstrate the versatility of the fixed
"It was just about to come off," she says, and goes on: "I put everything into
my painting. When I sell a piece, I immediately pay off some of my huge art
supply bills. I don't care about having a fancy BMW or things like that. Not
even that I should get a new wheelchair. I have a glamorous $10-a-day
Bymes, who suffers from the fatal hereditary disease, Fnedreich's Ataxia (FA),
which attacks the nervous system, works in her studio in the Sydney CBD. It is a
four-room space of orderly chaos.
It is here that she is Theresa Byrnes, the artist. She can forget about her
obligations as a Young Australian of the Year ambassador or her work raising
funds for medical research into FA.
"I get bored and frustrated with questions about the wheelchair all the time,"
"Get over it. Your physical state has nothing to do with your talent. In New
York, being in a wheelchair is no big deal. Australians need to realise that
these physical limitations mean nothing. It's all in the mind. People have the
notion that people in wheelchairs don't have a life."
Byrnes has thoroughly dispelled that notion in her just-released autobiography,
The Divine Mistake. The book is a fast-moving account of love and loss of love,
art, family, sex, booze, happiness, sadness and everything in between.
By the end of the memoir, FA and the wheelchair disappear into the background.
This could be the intellectual and emotional life of any 30-year-old woman who's
prepared to dive into life.
"It's not in my nature to hold back," Byrnes says. "Even as a child, I decided I
would never let anyone crush my spirit. I'm an extremely adventurous person. I
have a very active mind and a very low boredom tolerance."
As she writes in the preface, "I always wanted to be wrenched through life. I'm
an opportunist when it comes to experience and FA is a vehicle for squeezing out
more juice. I see my life as an active experiment; to grasp at greatness, I must
I put instinct before caution, ideals before reality and possibility before
In her late teens, Byrne developed a clumsiness that endeared her to friends who
called her "stumble bum" and "bubblehead". Running for a bus one day, her
seemingly innocuous clumsiness took a deeper hold.
She writes, "All of a sudden, I had the sensation of flying — my consciousness
had risen from my legs and I sensed a great distance between my upper body and
the ground. And then, my feet tripped over each other and I fell to the ground
in a heap. I'd been caught up in my momentum and lost the ability to
differentiate and control my lower limbs."
Byrnes is matter-of-fact about her situation. "People think because I've got a
'fatal' disease, I'm in a rush to live life," she says. "It's because life is so
exciting. Everyone has a death sentence and it's called life. I don't want to be
a 93-year-old sitting in the corner. I want to be out there."
The Divine Mistake also details Byrnes' occasionally troubled relationships and
a brief marriage. Her experiences, she says, are not uncommon and are merely
those of a modern young woman.
"What's the point of being secretive about the most devastating experiences
you've had? Everyone else has had pain at some time or another. I never put
myself above other people."
The book also looks at Byrnes' progress as an artist and the importance of
Australia's Top End and New York to her life and work. She now divides her time
between these places and her home in Sydney.
In her display room, she points out a number of recent abstract works.
"I don't want to paint humans," she says. "I want to paint what's inside humans.
When people see my work, they're confronted with freedom and power itself. I
thought it was going to be easy. It's not. "But I haven't got bored once. Yet."
The door to the studio opens. It's her mother.
"I'm sorry," she says, "but I'm off to the gym." And she's gone, in the freshly
welded chair, into a life that barely has a chance to catch its breath.
The Divine Mistake by Theresa Byrnes is published by Macmillan, $28.