Sunderland artist uses health battle as inspiration for new exhibition

Artist Gary Nicholson with some of his work from his latest exhibition, Regeneration, at Sunderland University Picture by David Wood.
Artist Gary Nicholson with some of his work from his latest exhibition, Regeneration, at Sunderland University Picture by David Wood.

A man whose life changed forever after the discovery of a tumour left him confined to a wheelchair is now using his experience as a catalyst in his second career as an artist.

Eight years ago, Gary Nicholson was working as a joiner and living the life of “a normal bloke.”

A glasswork piece by Gary Nicholson, which combines colourful flowers with a transparent spine.

A glasswork piece by Gary Nicholson, which combines colourful flowers with a transparent spine.

But while surgery was successful in removing the tumour on his spinal chord, it left him paraplegic and unemployed after three decades as a craftsman.

Now, after changing direction through a masters degree in design from Sunderland University, he is opening an exhibition of work based around his experiences which saw him turn his tragic circumstances into a new start.

Gary said: “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.

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.

Gary Nicholson

“That got me into art, and eventually art therapy classes at the Art Studio in Hendon.”

The Art Studio fired up Gary’s passion for the subject and he applied to study at Sunderland, first completing a degree in illustration.

His exhibition, Regeneration, will be at the Showcase Gallery in the Priestman Building until Friday.

It includes illustrations, glass work and ceramics, which each reflect his experiences of disability and how art helped him change.

One of Gary Nicholson's pieces, which shows a spine.

One of Gary Nicholson's pieces, which shows a spine.

He added: “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.

“It sounds a daft thing to say for a man in a wheelchair, but I didn’t want to just sit around.

Gary and fellow student Will Johnson are looking into how they can start their own community art therapy business with advice from university’s business start-up unit, the Enterprise Place.

Gary recently worked with users of Middlesbrough Spinal Unit as part of his masters and they made work using a virtual space, which he believes is the next step for art therapy.

A piece of work made by Gary Nicholson.

A piece of work made by Gary Nicholson.

“Art therapy has been around since the Second World War, but it is still very stuck in traditional ideas of painting, drawing and sculpting,” he added.

“With new virtual technology there is a new tool we can use in art therapy, the creative possibilities of which are almost limitless.”

A colour piece created by the former joiner.

A colour piece created by the former joiner.

A piece of artwork created by Gary Nicholson, inspired by his own life experiences.

A piece of artwork created by Gary Nicholson, inspired by his own life experiences.

Gary Nicholson has used a series of forms to create artwork.

Gary Nicholson has used a series of forms to create artwork.