What doesn't kill you makes you vulnerable
Despite being born with a heart condition, artist Padraig Parle was busy, active and successful - until an unrelated accident left him fighting for his life
Ask artist Padraig Parle what makes him tick, and the answer may not be what you expect. "An artificial aortic valve made of titanium," he says. "It ticks away, loud enough that you can hear it when I'm somewhere quiet. I'm like a ticking time bomb, literally."
The titanium valve was inserted when Padraig was 15, during the second of his heart operations (the first took place when he was just two years old), after which Padraig was put on to Warfarin, a blood thinner, which meant he had to lower his sporting expectations considerably.
Growing up in Wexford, the middle of three boys, that can't have been easy. "I wasn't able to play contact sports, so that was a bit of a bummer," he says now. "I thought I was going to be a professional footballer, but maybe everyone thinks that at that stage!"
For the most part, he lived, he says, a perfectly normal life. "I did nearly everything a kid would do, although I'd say my parents probably did worry about me. It wasn't something that really held me back but I was aware of being different."
So is it too easy to say that being denied competitive sport turned him more in the direction of art? "Actually, art is something I was always a lot better than everyone else at," he says. "It was my way of shining."
That said, his second heart operation did have a part to play in the choosing of his path. Padraig knew he wanted to be an artist from the time he was very young - "10 or 11" - but got temporarily distracted when he started secondary school. "Then when I had my second operation, I had to stay back a year, and I remember being really p***ed off. I remember saying to my brother, 'I hate school, all my friends are moving on. I don't want to do anything academic', and he said 'what would maybe suit you would be art college'. I thought, 'that really sounds like a good fit'."
So after school, Padraig did Fine Art in DIT - "a very liberating experience", he says with a laugh. "Suddenly I was in Dublin, I had my own place, I could do whatever I wanted. I probably didn't make best use of my time in college, but I really loved it."
Everything, we agree, is wasted on the young, not just youth. But Padraig was, gradually, working out how he wanted to express himself. "I've done all sorts of different styles - figurative including portrait and landscape, abstract, semi-abstract, installations, and I keep coming back to abstract painting. I think of what David Hockney said - that for good art, you need three elements - the eye, the hand and the heart."
He came out of college in 2001 with a Fine Art degree, "which looks slightly better on a CV than a criminal record", and, clearly a mix of pragmatic and creative, began working as a substitute teacher as well as painting, then studying for a HDip. He taught and he painted, living in a two-bedroom flat in Rathmines with his girlfriend, now wife, Grainne, and within a short space of time began to exhibit his work.
In 2006 he had his first solo show at the Origin. "I sold everything the first night! I was 28, and I was thinking, 'I'll give up teaching now and be a big famous romantic artist'. I was really excited. I was young and everything seemed to be coming together." A second show, six months later, did equally well. "That summer, we went to New York and got engaged, and I was walking round MoMA thinking I was looking at my contemporaries!"
And then came the first of the blows that would derail Padraig's career, and indeed life. The recession had an immediate impact on the art world, but Padraig took those knocks fairly robustly. "I thought, 'maybe this is the time to reflect? Am I being true to myself?'
He decided to go back to college and do a Masters as "this would bring a whole new level of critical thinking to my work". During that time, he hired a billboard in Rathmines, beside the Bank of Ireland, and created an eye-catching collage that read Enter At Your Own Risk. Toxic Debt. "That was outside the bank for a month. It was on Primetime and in a good few newspapers," he says. Gradually, the art world began to pick up. Padraig got married, and in February of 2013, his daughter, Stella, was born. "Things were going well," he says, with the wry smile of someone who has learned the hard way not to trust such things.
During a game of squash with his brother - "my mam was always saying, 'squash is too strenuous for you with your heart, you shouldn't be playing it'; to which I always said 'ah, whatever…' - Padraig found himself in terrible pain. "I couldn't breathe. My first thought was 'I'm having a heart attack. Ma's going to kill me!'" An ambulance took him to hospital, where he was told that, in fact, he had punctured his lung. "It's called a spontaneous pneumothorax, it can happen to tall people if you over-exercise. Nothing to do with my heart. And sometimes it will remedy itself."
He wasn't, he says, feeling too bad by then. "I walked down to the X-ray room, and I was already thinking about the wedding I was going to the next week, where I was best man." But overnight, the pain got much worse and by the next morning, "I couldn't get a breath, I was passing out. The consultant told me my lung had collapsed down to 0pc, and asked me if I had ever smoked crack cocaine, because it was such a strange thing to happen."
Although Padraig's parents had travelled up from Wexford, and Grainne was in and out of hospital visiting him, there was no one with him in that moment. "The consultant said, 'we're going to have to go in straight away and reinflate the lung. It was like something out of Pulp Fiction," Padraig says. "He had a huge needle. Because I'm on Warfarin. I'm not even allowed get my teeth cleaned because the risk of bleeding is so great, and now he wanted to stick a huge needle through the front of my chest, right there and then in the hospital bed. He just said, 'we have to get the lung back up', and pulled the curtain closed."
Padraig can laugh, and he does, joking that "I was sick of the baby getting all the attention, I needed to do something!", but it's clear the memory of trauma is still vivid. "He leaned in and inserted the needle, but what he didn't tell me is that it feels like drowning!" It was, he says, "horrible". A tube went in, to reinflate the lung, and stayed in position for five days, coming out the day before the wedding. That morning, Padraig was due to be discharged. "But the wound was bleeding continuously and they were sewing it up continuously. I said there might be a bleed on the inside, and they said, 'no, it's grand'." Except that Padraig felt worse and worse. "The pain was really terrible," he says. "They gave me more morphine, but it still got worse." A doctor came and "he started tapping my chest. Then he called more doctors.
"The thing is," Padraig says, with a faint smile, "when I originally punctured my lung, the doctor in A&E said 'look, do you see anyone rushing around? Do you see 10 doctors crowding around you? That's when you need to worry…' and suddenly, there I was with about 10 doctors crowding around me. They cleared the ward and they were taking blood out of so many veins, I was like a pin cushion. They had a heart monitor on me and my heart was going at 170 beats per minute. I think I heard someone say cardiac arrest, and I honestly thought I was dying."
What went through his mind in those moments? "I didn't turn to God," he says, "but I kind of missed the old life I might have bitched about. I thought, 'it wasn't too bad really. I complained about things, but God, I'd really fight to get back to that now'. It seemed great suddenly, it seemed amazing. I was," he says quietly, "really scared."
At some stage, he sent a text to his parents: "'Tell Grainne she can marry someone else. Promise to look after them financially'. I meant it. That was funny, because I always thought I'd go bananas if Grainne was with someone else, even if I was dead. Maybe I'm a better person than I thought I was," he smiles, but really, none of it was funny.
There were, he says, three litres of blood on his chest, and three more litres in his lung. "I was literally being crushed, my heart was being crushed by the volume." There and then, doctors performed an emergency operation while Padraig was awake, because there wasn't time to get an anaesthetist. "They gave me a numbing agent, which takes a while to kick in, but they didn't even have time to wait for that. They got these pipes, around the size of a McDonald's straw, and just went in through my side, through the ribs, into the lung, and blood just came out. I was wide awake. You don't scream in pain where you're in absolute agony. You just moan. You don't have the energy for screaming."
That procedure was followed by an operation, almost immediately, in which part of his lung was cut out, "to stop the bleeding. I'm a patchwork of scars, front and back," he says. Then followed many weeks of recovery, first in the intensive care unit, then a high dependency unit. "The woman beside me was dying. Everyone in there is dead now. I really felt I had to fight my way out. I was on a morphine drip, and I had huge hallucinations, I thought my bed was on fire, that the nurse was trying to kill me. There was so much pain and panic." Then there was three more weeks on a ward before, finally, Padraig went home, where a whole new challenge began.
"They sorted me out, but left me in such a bad way," he says. "When I got out, everyone thought it was some kind of celebration, but I didn't feel any better. People were coming in and out to visit, but I couldn't cope. I was in a two-bedroom apartment in a hot summer. I couldn't do anything for myself; even sitting watching telly gave me vertigo. I felt sick and dizzy. I was on huge amounts of morphine - 10 tablets a day - I'd get panic attacks and vomit. Sneezing was sore, but vomiting was unbelievably painful. And every time I got a pain I thought, 'here we go again, I'm having another bleed, my lung's collapsed again'. That went on for months. The pain would come out of the blue and would last maybe half an hour. It was so stressful. My confidence was gone. You think what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but it traumatises you and makes you feel vulnerable too." Being sick like that, he says, "shakes you to your very core".
And in the meantime, he had a four-month-old baby girl whom he couldn't really care for. The worst, he says, is that illness "numbed me towards Stella as well. I didn't feel anything, and I was conscious of that and felt bad about it".
While still in hospital, Padraig had made a promise to himself. "I was thinking, 'if you get well, you haven't been painting, what do you want to do? If you want to be an artist, you need to take a career break. You're going to concentrate on your art, and make decisions about what you want to do with your life and go for it. Stop waiting for an invitation; just go for it!'"
And so he did. Once better, he took a year off work, he and Grainne moved to Wexford with Stella. "Grainne works in a creche so she could transfer. We were close to my parents, I started spending a lot more time on art and felt like I was hitting a groove. It was a fresh start for us," he says.
Now, as well as his forthcoming exhibition in the Origin Gallery, Padraig works in the Educate Together in Gorey. "We're making new friends, we have a house, a garden, we had a son in 2016, he's one now, Stella's four," and, perhaps best of all, he says, "me and Stella are just the two closest people now. I'm really mad about her. It's amazing."
As far as his art is concerned, that too has changed; "I won't sign off on a piece until I'm really happy with it. I've got way more particular. I just feel I want to be really proud of every painting. I'll keep going until it's right." This exhibition is called Triangulation, which, he says "simply means the division of a space into triangles, which is what I have done to the surface of the canvas. The term triangulation also refers to what I think is a contemporary phenomenon whereby our presence is never fixed but alternates between the physical world around us, our internal world and the virtual or digital world." It is also, "my final milestone to get over. I haven't exhibited since 2007. I used not to be nervous about exhibiting when I was younger. Now, I am nervous, but also proud. In my head, the opening will feel like the end of the film, the credits rolling. All my family and friends will be there; it's going to feel like a lovely little end. I am," he says, "as happy as I've ever been."
Triangulation by Padraig Parle, opens on January 25 at the Origin Gallery. www.theorigingallery.com www.padraigparle.com
Forged in adversity Five famous artists who overcame the odds
* Frida Kahlo was left disabled by polio as a child, then seriously injured in a traffic accident at 18, leaving her in pain for the rest of her life. The accident meant she had to abandon medical school, and instead turned to her childhood hobby, art.
* After the death of his wife, Claude Monet stopped painting for two years. It was the rose-covered trellises at the entrance to the water garden at his home in northern France that ended his creative block. The resulting panels, the Grandes Decorations, was one of his most ambitious works.
* A combination of anxiety and a difficult marriage sent Georgia O'Keeffe to hospital for two months, suffering from 'psycho-neurosis'. On recovery, she moved to New Mexico, where the landscape provided her with inspiration and impetus.
* Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec suffered genetic health problems from birth. At 13 he broke his right leg, followed by his left, with neither healing properly so that his legs didn't grow and he was physically unable to do many of the things his companions were doing. Instead, he immersed himself in art.
* Paul Gauguin, after suicide attempts and a long battle with alcoholism, fled the stresses of life in Paris and settled in Tahiti, where he created his most famous works.
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