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Case Study

Gary Nicholson

MA Design

Gary Nicholson was working as a joiner and, in his own words, living the life of “a normal bloke” – then overnight spinal surgery saw him become unemployed, and permanently wheelchair-bound. But Gary found a new direction in life – he graduated with a master's degree in Design from the University of Sunderland and opened an exhibition of his work, Regeneration, based on his experiences of turning tragic illness into beautiful works of art.

My dad was a joiner, and he used to have a workshop attached to our house. When I was a kid I used to be always messing around and making stuff for myself, and I always wanted to be a joiner just like my dad – but he wanted me to go to school and study art. All I wanted to do is go out and earn a living. 

My whole career was gone overnight, and I basically sat around not knowing what you do. Then a friend I knew from school who was studying for a degree in Glass and Ceramics, suggested that I come along and have a go at the National Glass Centre. That got me into art, and eventually art therapy classes at the Art Studio in Hendon. I used to go at 9am and finish at 5pm – and the next logical step was to go to university, so I applied to Sunderland, got in, and ended up doing a degree in Illustration.

Art therapy changed me. I went from being a joiner to a master's student, and it occurred to me that the best thing to study would be how art therapy affected me. At the time I didn’t appreciate how much bigger the mental effects of my disability was compared to the physical effects. My response to becoming paraplegic was just to buckle down and get on with it – but looking back now I realise just how much it did mess with my head.

I used to play squash, I was a keen mountain biker, I’d done karate since I was 11, and then it just stopped.  Suddenly, every day seemed very long, and I realise now that the real fight was conquering my mind. It sounds a daft thing to say for a man in a wheelchair, but I didn’t want to just sit around. Art became my job, I’d go out of the house first thing in the morning and come back at tea time. It beat watching Jeremy Kyle!

Art therapy has been around since the Second World War, but it is still very stuck in traditional ideas of painting, drawing and sculpting. With new virtual technology, there is a new tool we can use in art therapy, the creative possibilities of which are almost limitless. I took the Japanese idea of Kitsuki art – accepting the beauty in your flaws, which I thought tied in perfectly with my experiences of spiral injury. So for one of the pieces, I created a ceramic sculpture of a spine, broke it, then welded the pieces back together with gold thread.

I think what happened to me made me change for the better. I’m more confident now. It’s always at the back of my mind that I’m the same bloke that I always was – but I’m clearly not. If you are older, or even younger and worried about going to university, I say ‘just do it’.  Grab the bull by the horns and go for it. What’s the worst that can happen?"

Published 8 August 2019



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