Mary's taking Goose Field exhibition to Bray gallery
David Medcalf called to the home of unique painter Mary Duffy beside the flat fields of the bird sanctuary in Newcastle ahead of her upcoming exhibition
Some people have disabilities which may be overlooked or ignored completely at social occasions. Some people have disabilities which may be politely mentioned in conversation some little while after making their acquaintance. With Mary Duffy, however, there is no missing or postponing an issue which poses some immediate questions.
How does one greet a person who has no arms? What is the etiquette? What is the protocol? What is the polite thing to do? Receiving the latest visitor to her home in Newcastle, the painter is quick to defuse any awkwardness. Mary indicates that a brief continental style hug, with air kissing optional, is in order. She even appears to extract some mischievous pleasure from setting out these ground rules.
The lack of arms has done much to define her over the 50-plus years that she has been on this planet. She has emerged from the process as one who successfully lives her own life on her own terms. That mischievousness, which seizes with a laugh on any request for her to 'lend a hand', clearly helps. Her obvious, incisive, unsentimental intelligence assists too in maintaining the spirit of independence.
And she is blessed with a pair of legs, complete with nimble toes, which allow her to cover for deficiencies further up. Seeing her remove and replace the cap off a tube of oil paint for the first time is a real eyebrow-raiser. Making a cup of tea for the visitor is a doddle and it is clear that she clears many of the routine challenges of life with practised ease.
She certainly does not have to seek any special consideration for her art on account of her alleged disability. The 'Goose Field' exhibition at the Signal Art Gallery in Bray from June 20 may be viewed without making any allowance. Those who admire her work need never know that she has no arms. Mary was born that way in Tullamore in 1961, the unfortunate side-effect of her late mother taking the drug thalidomide.
'Before I could walk, I was told that a paint brush would look well between those toes,' she recalls. 'Loving art has been a complicated love affair.' She resented the expectation among her elders and betters that someone with no arms would somehow naturally turn to painting. She was after all a bright girl with a mind of her own.
At the age of five she was dispatched to the local art teacher, whose other pupils were all about ten years her senior. Amid all the jumble and the canvases, her studio in Newcastle features a charming black and white photo of that little girl working at her easel.
At secondary school she took French instead of art as there was no qualified teacher on the staff. But she continued to receive private tuition from an Anglo-Irish lady with a posh accent - Bean uí Chinnéide - who coached her in still-life and landscape, as well as introducing her to oils.
Mary's portfolio was good enough to gain her a prized place at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. The thought of the prestigious institution still has her shaking her head almost four decades later: 'I found myself at NCAD at age 18, where the painting was knocked out of me. I thought I could learn to paint and draw there but instead I had to wait until I was 45 years old. I am still looking for the education I didn't get at art college.'
The orthodoxy of the time when she was a student steered her towards 'performance art' - she invests the phrase with a terrible bleakness. Her own performance attracted some passing measure of fame as it required her to cover her naked body in paint. She does not look back on such exhibitionism with any trace of fondness.
She decided to train as a teacher, taking her qualification amid warnings that she would find it hard to find work in her new field. The warnings were warranted, as she found when she made herself available to cover for art teachers who were out sick. More than once she turned up at schools which had ordered a sub only for the principal to decide 'there must be some mistake' and that no one was needed - at least not one who had no arms.
'It was painful,' she admits now. One principal told her bluntly that she was clearly not up to the job as she could not hit the children. Her best strategy was to avoid the head's office and make contact instead with school secretary. If she lasted until the 11 o'clock morning break - as she always did - then no one in authority would bat an eyelid or order a limb count.
One of her favourite gigs as a teacher was at St Mary's School for blind children. It was not her only unusual posting: 'I got the job that no one else wanted - in prison. And I was very successful in prison.' Not many people can say that. Her first glimpse of life behind bars was in the late 1980s when she was called in to the woman's wing at Mountjoy.
'It was a terrible place,' Mary makes no bones about it, remembering how most of female prisoners she met took incarceration very hard. Her memories of a stint as artist-in-residence (though not actually living on the premises) with republican prisoners in the jail at Portlaoise are much fonder.
'If all I did was talk to them human to human, then I would be doing at good job. I engaged and they engaged and we had a good time,' she says of her time on D Wing. She found more conventional employment for a time with the VEC for Westmeath, who made her art teacher for the county, serving a roster of schools. The permanent and pensionable position was abandoned, however, when Mary was invited to an event in the US run by the Women's Caucus for Artists. Her employers would not give her the time off but she went anyway and returned home to live once more on her wits.
She was taken on by RTÉ as a researcher with the Pat Kenny show and graduated to producing her own radio documentaries. She could have stayed in Montrose but a mysterious brush with ill health prompted her to seek yet another career path.
'At 45, I thought I was dying - they never found out why.' The worrying fainting fit was not repeated but Mary never returned to her broadcasting post after taking what was supposed to be just a year out. She had decided at last to become a painter, not a teacher but a full-time artist, with her own full-time studio at the home she shares with husband Denis in Newcastle. So she has been painting non-stop for the past dozen years with Denis's unswerving support.
'I took a business approach to painting,' says Mary Duffy of her attitude to work, with special reference to commissioned portrait. 'I don't paint for money but I do need money to paint.' The portraits do not feature in her choice of material for the exhibition at the Signal Art Gallery in Bray, where the emphasis will be on a selection of semi-abstract landscapes.
'The Goose Field' title is inspired by the view of flat meadow she sees every day from her sitting room, full of grazing Brent and greylag geese each winter: 'I get inspired by what I see every day and how it changes,' she says, revealing that she prefers not to work from photographs. As she is not driving at present, she must concentrate on what is close to hand.
Mary is grateful for the support of the Arts Council, which has provided her with a mentor, in the form of well-known landscapist Donald Teskey. Day-to-day assistance with practical matters is delivered by her assistants Catherine Kelly and Kim Gavin, who discreetly tidy up after someone who confesses to being really messy.
Amid all the seriousness of assembling the paintings for Signal Art, she still has time for humour.
Why, she asks as though posing a riddle, do you think she has been vegetarian ever since giving up meat in1980?: 'You don't need a knife or fork! I used to hate people cutting up food for me.'
She nods at a drawing on her wall of a well-built nude of indisputable masculinity and explains how artists appreciate the opportunity to sketch a model. Most of them stand up on such occasions but not the one with no arms, who must work from a sitting position: 'I end up at eye level with genitalia - I have that in common with Toulouse Lautrec.'