Theresa Byrnes
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THE SUN HERALD - January 2, 2000


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 wheel.

"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 lifestyle."

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," she says.

"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 risk failure.

I put instinct before caution, ideals before reality and possibility before negativity."

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.

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