Theresa, 10 months pregnant. ANDRZEJ LIGUZ 2014
By Theresa Byrnes.
In loving memory of Kate Millett.
If I’ve learned anything thus far, it’s that youth and beauty fade, but talent is forever. As I get older, my force gets stronger, my aesthetic becomes clearer, and I am still as fearless as ever to make a mark and to mark art.
I am always in love with each of my new paintings, like it was the first and only one I’ve ever created. I am setting up an old-wood fragment surface for my next work, the first three layers done — I will make it sing. It rests in the back of my mind and studio, eager to get to the front.
Still — amidst the art — there have been men.
I was married to a man when I was 27, back in 1997. My husband ended up being a drinker and sex addict. I was then the director of “The Theresa Byrnes Foundation Inc.” I was organizing the first annual art auction to raise funds for scientific research to find a cure for Friedreich’s Ataxia (FA), the neurological disorder I have. I had been in a wheelchair for one year. My husband slapped me hard and got mad at me whenever I worked late, saying that overworking was not good for my health and that my FA was going to get worse. He wanted to break me, control me — he could not.
He wanted to break me, control me — he could not.
In 1998, I dated a guy who wanted me to give up painting to be with him. It was the 1990’s not the 1950’s — ridiculous! He was out. In that same year, I was raped. A friend tried to console me by saying, “men think they can have you because you’re an artist and you are free.” Oh my, I realized how not far we had come. Being a woman felt scary all of a sudden. Did people really believe if you pursued a life of freedom you were free game sexually? I published my memoir, The Divine Mistake, in 1999 and moved to New York City.
In 2006, I made out with an ex-boyfriend in my sprawling Chelsea studio. I really felt we were falling in love again. He had become a rockstar and I had what it took to be an art-star. He went on tour and came back engaged to be married. I remember commuting back to my East Village apartment, New York City whirring around me. My eyelids were opening and closing in slow motion. I arrived home, dropped my head on my door, wept, and thought, “If I get my heart broken one more time, I am going to go insane.”
When I file through “boyfriends past”, I often recall people praising my partners for pushing me around in my wheelchair. ”Oh, it’s so good you are looking after her.” Even if they were alcoholic potheads who took my money, their maleness was enough to give them the credit for my survival.
Were they fucking joking?
I was — and always will be — the one in charge of crafting my own free life.
To achieve a life of freedom takes extraordinary discipline, focus, and management. No man could stop me, and — when the time came — neither could motherhood. When I was four months pregnant, I was advised by two successful women to have an abortion so I could continue making art. Prominent women in the arts have stated that they choose not to have children so they could focus on their work. I was with them once upon a time. But my baby was being born into MY world, a life that was 100% self-actualized. Being a mother is not a disability, just like being in a wheelchair is not a disability. If anything, I sometimes think being too comfortable, average, or normal thwarts creative thinking and softens character.
Being a mother is not a disability, just like being in a wheelchair is not a disability.
My mother didn’t exactly agree with this sentiment when she came to visit me, however. I was nine months pregnant and did not approve of the father of my child. He was my lover, after all, not my conventional husband. I loved what we had, though. He was a committed lover, and I was free to work hard without strings or expectations. I was free to be brilliant. He helped me in the studio when he could. He realized my strength and was not intimidated by it, nor tried to take credit for what I achieved. Our magnificent sex gave me energy — I glowed all day. I realized our unconventional arrangement was perfect. I was free to be me. “He saw me.”
Two years ago, he died of cancer. He took with him all the expectations my mother pinned on him. He took with him all the complications and confusion of what a man’s role is. But no one has ever “seen me” since. Grief and relief, it was just me again. Everyone has their talents, maybe igniting and maintaining a relationship with another human is not one of mine. With slurred speech, my flirtations are incomprehensible. I zigzag across the Manhattan streets in my paint splattered wheelchair — alone.
In a recent TV interview I state, “Not money, men, nor disease could stop me. I am going to the studio to paint.” Many men complained about that statement — no surprises there.
These days, I choose not to look for love the post-post-modern way — online dating, Tinder, relegating romantic magic to a desk job. Is finding love really as simple as online shopping? Sex is so sacred and magical, with no returns; I can’t be rebellious, urgent and gruff about it. With maturity, my sexuality has become gentle and I ask myself, “Will I ever have sex again?”
I don’t want to be an object. I want to be in prolific magic.
I treasure my alone time so much, I’m not sure if I want to give it up. I am excited to spend this part of my life completely devoted to my work, and to my son. I don’t want to be an object. I want to be in prolific magic.
Theresa Byrnes is an NYC-based painter and writer. She has had over thirty solo exhibitions at spaces including Saatchi & Saatchi in New York and Sydney, Cristianne Nienaber Contemporary Art NYC, and the Australian Embassy in Washington D.C. She is also the author of The Divine Mistake.