I am someone who relishes challenge, and this is just as well, because my life is indeed challenging. I was born without arms in 1961 and this makes my days demanding, stimulating and complex. I like it like this.
I didn’t always - because it has never been easy. All the same, I recognize that I have been really lucky....
I have been really lucky. Against the odds, I have had the rare privilege to grow up and be loved with my family and friends, in my community. I say privilege because that is what it was. It wasn’t something I, or my family, could have taken for granted or claimed as a right… it was a privilege. Against the wishes of the authorities, and with the co-operation of the nuns in my local school, I was saved from a childhood marred by institutionalisation and segregation that would have forever marked me out and separated me from my family and my community.
And even though I had this advantage and went on to art college and graduate as a teacher, and later to study at university for a masters degree in equality studies , I have found it hard to make the transition to paid work.
So, it’s just as well that I am a highly motivated, self-reliant free-thinker. It means I have the spirit and confidence to work freelance and the temperament of an entrepreneur. As a result my working life has been nothing if not interesting.
As well as odd teaching stints in schools and art colleges, I have worked as an artist-in-residence in prisons, played therole of Althea in the movie Fur with Nicole Kidman & Robert Downey I worked as a radio producer, researcher and documentary-maker with RTE (national public radio)
I have researched policy documents on the arts, as well as published prose and poetry. In between times I have been an activist and campaigner for civil rights
I have devised, initiated, fund-raised and co-ordinated an equality training project for the EU, worked in public relations for an art gallery; I've been a masseuse and I have made earrings for a living. In short, I am very, very resourceful.
I may love taking risks and trying new things, but even so, by the time I was in my mid-forties, I was taken aback to find myself itching for change, again. I had arrived at a place in my life where I had a creative and exciting job in radio. The thought of starting again, with something entirely new, was not anything I was prepared to consider. Really. I was too old, had made too many career changes and had a big investment in staying where I was, because I had started a pension. And then everything changed...
I suddenly and very urgently felt really ill. Before I lost consciousness.. my life flashed before me (like it does in the movies). I remember thinking it was good that I had no unfinished business in my personal life. I felt clear with my nearest and dearest. I was not dying with a whole lot left unsaid. I also, bizarrely thought, that there might even be some advantage in that at least my husband would get my ‘death-in-service’ benefit. I was sorry that my last action in life would appear to have been my role as Althea in the movie FUR 2006 … and I really regretted not having given painting a better shot.
Well, I didn’t die obviously, not then any way (on the carpet in my hallway, nearly four years ago). But as the ambulance arrived and the terrible noise in my ears subsided (the rushing of blood back to my head), by then I already had decided that something’s got to change.
And change I did. Not with a great plan, nor with any precise or clear road map… but it quickly became apparent that if I was to get better, it would mean taking some time out.
And, after the initial shock wore off and the weeks became months and time started to slip by, I found myself doing always what I wanted to do, which was painting.
It brought me back to my childhood, and also back to the future I had been avoiding. Twice a week I was taken out of school, (missing knitting class) and was brought to the technical (second-level) school and there John Gilligan was charged with teaching me and a bunch of unruly teenagers to paint.
Even then, at the age of 5, I knew the subtext of these efforts. Painting is what people born without arms do, invariably. It's all we can do, really. Well, I kind of liked painting, but resented being put in that particular box.
Looking at this image then and now, I get that same feeling. I know that little girl with the big bow tie ribbon. I see a face full of concentration. I raise an eyebrow at the memory of the ribbon. My knee aches at the height of that paintbrush and the stretch of that left leg. I can smell the powder paint and still feel the texture of the powder dry and chalk splattered wooden floorboards.
And I know that it has taken me a long time to get here, where I am meant to be, right now. So, I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to be part of the rest of this story.
Come on! be part of the rest of this story!
The Exception to the Rule
Address at the Opening of Sea Sky & the Square Mile exhibition, March 2008
I'd like to welcome everyone here..From Newcastle and Kilcoole, from Finglas, Feakle and Furbo, Blessington, Bonmahon and Tramore…There’s even a contingent from Donnycarney and my Dad and his friend, Maura came all the way from west Mayo. I know you have made a huge effort to get here, and I really appreciate it .. Thank you all for coming, It is very nice to see lovely familiar faces..
This exhibition is really special for me….its very close to my heart and my home…It is close to my heart because I love painting… and, as is usual for me, I am doing it against the odds, and without what most people consider the basic equipment.
This event is unique for me because its close to home.. I have lived in North county Wicklow for more than twenty years now… Longer than I have lived anywhere else. Close to home means for me it’s a perilous adventure
…and I know all about perilous adventures - In one of my former lives as a mixed media /performance artist …I had loads of exhibitions and performances, which involved standing naked in front of people reciting monologues, from San Francisco to Tokyo, and all points in between, including once in Ireland and that was in Limerick- and having this show here feels a lot more challenging than standing naked in front of 300 Japanese people, being simultaneously, and very badly translated..
But high risk also means high reward.. I really wanted this to happen. I am very happy with my paintings and delighted to have this opportunity to have you see them.
Many people were involved in helping me put this together… the Signal staff were great, Eamon de Buitleir agreed in principle months ago to be here tonight, and that is wonderful, But most of all, Eilish Carney and Lisa Merriman Dutton, stuck with me through the whole process and made everything easy, painless and even enjoyable…
So, thanks a lot. And I have to tell you that having regular hours of assistance in my life has made me even more independent than I was, not less… and that’s not just a good thing… it’s a great thing!
Finally, I want to say a big ‘thank you’ to my spouse, my sponsors and my buyers… My ‘Dearly Beloved’, Denis Buckley, has been a great support for more than twenty years and has been particularly supportive of my painting. For more than two decades, he has told me that in his heart, he always sees me as a painter… This was long before I even had a paint box to my name.
My sponsors, which include both arts councils on this island through the Arts and Disability Fund, subsidized my art materials for this last year –And that has been great.
And my buyers… My buyers, like my sponsors are all intelligent, sensitive types, with great taste. When I decided it was possible to become a painter- this was after I took a break from my exciting, tough and demanding day job, a lot of people told me, including some other artists, that no-one makes a living as an artist (unless they are dead, and in my book, making a living when you are dead is not much of a living)..
And not for the first time, and probably not for the last time, I was told that I was being ‘unrealistic’ Oh, I have heard that so often….! Anyway, they are all so wrong…I am very realistic…
So, to my buyers, my supporters and my sponsors, Thanks a lot, You help make me, once again, be what I like being best - the exception to the rule….Go raibh míle maith agaibh, go l
Why I stopped making work on the politics of identity
In the 1980s and into the 1990s. I worked as a visual and performance artist. This work was supplemented with teaching, modelling and invililating in a gallery. It concerned my experience as a disabled woman and the politics of identity. I have exhibited my photographs and texts, and performed across the globe, including the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and the National Photographic Museum in Tokyo.
While I received wide critical acclaim and my work was very much in demand (and to a certain extent, it still is), I was not a happy bunny. I got lots of awards and commissions. My work was described as seminal and it came at a time when disability arts was at its very beginning. Looking back, I find it hard to consider that work I made at 23 years old is included in the National Self Portrait Collection and I was also shortlisted for the GPA Award for Emerging Artists. But there is no denying that it was a confusing and difficult time for me. Thirty years later, my performance work is reference in 231 books on last count.
It was a confusing and difficult time because I found it impossible to get a fee for exhibiting my work in this way. Paying the artist for showing work was so low on the agenda of most of the curators that I dealt with, that it hardly featured at all. There were a few exceptions, but very, very few. The wall painter, plumber and catalogue maker all had to get paid, but not the person who was central to the event – the artist. This made me very discouraged as I didn’t have a straight enough face to do what others in my situation were doing –teach at third level.
I see now where I went wrong and how I could have made it right. My demands were too modest, all I was really looking for was reimbursement from my out-of-pocket expenses. For example my telephone bill and to pay the person who was packing my work–work I couldn’t do myself. I see now that what I needed was a policy and a price structure! I needed to work out a fee for the work I was going to do and then simply say this is my fee. I needed to make the offer and if it was rejected when fair enough. But I found it maddening to be in demand to travel the world and to be offered in return only reimbursement for my airfare and accommodation, but nothing else. I had masses of outgoings and no income to show for it, only a massive credit card bill. Even the Arts Council of Ireland, which was really good to me in terms of bursaries, would only give me money if I gave it to somebody else. I could apply for a bursary to get photographs printed, but I couldn’t get any money to pay the rent or to give me time to think. As I got older, my needs changed and I wanted a mortgage. As a direct result of this, I got a few ‘proper jobs ’ and for a number of years I worked in radio as a producer, researcher and documentary maker and eventually found my way back to before I made performance work and to painting.
Performance Work, Politics & Disability Arts
In 1980, while at art college, I began to look at, and to question, my own fragile identity as someone who was very definitely different, disabled, and therefore, without any relevant cultural reference points. There were disability reference points all right, but they had been created by non-disabled people and regarded disabled people as tragic, pathetic or brave. These images were so far removed from my own experience, I had to search for an image of disability I could be proud of, an image that did not reek of emotion or pity, an image that reflected disability as being a part of being human and all the richness and diversity that that entails.
In a single sentence, my issue-based work has always been about opposing cultural norms and making strong, and vibrant statements about my life and the lives of other disabled people, our commitments and our values.
Disability Arts is not, some eccentric cranky disabled people shutting ourselves off from the rest of society. Disability arts gives us the confidence and the opportunity to take our place in society authorized and empowered by the understanding that we do not need to discard our identity as the price of being accepted and included.
As with all of my previous work in this arena, the performance piece called "Stories of a Body" has its origins in issues that arise in my own life, and is firmly rooted in my experience as a disabled woman. It takes the form of a monologue that I delivered standing naked in front of my audience. It was prompted, in 1990, by my initial visit to a G.P. in the town to which I had recently moved. Without much preamble or invitation, he launched into a speech about how “thalidomide had been such an awful tragedy” and how I must feel “very angry” towards him and the medical profession in general. Then he waited for me to respond. I expected he wanted reassurance and curiously, forgiveness. As an adult I was able to be clear with him how I wanted him to relate to me as my G.P., and that his feelings regarding thalidomide ought not to be part of that.
Nevertheless, the incident shook me and reminded me forcefully of how I had been disempowered as a child - how I had been stripped naked, objectified and desensitized by the medical profession as they tried to label, categorise, define and re-define my very existence.
I remember remembering it all, recording it in my child’s memory as if to act as a witness in my adulthood to the indignity I endured as a child. I remember the big words they used. I remember their recommendations when I was two years old, how their artificial arms would fit me better if they sliced off my little hand.
Most of all, I remember their horror at my condition. I was treated me as if I were invisible and incapable comprehending the judgments that were being made about my life then and my future now.
They were not the only ones in my life to treat me as if I was invisible and incapable of comprehension. In fact, being treated in this way is a regular part of my life and in many ways in doing this performance, by standing here, naked in front of you; I am trying to hold up a mirror for you,
I am making you question the nature of your voyeurism.
I would like to be able to show on this website, my last performance, but I can't. Not only are the sound appalling, and the picture less than perfect, but also a record of the performance misses out the essential ingredient, which makes this performance work. The essential ingredient of course is being there. Engaging Being Engaged. Gazing and Being Engazed. Mo White expresses this well in a review published in the arts review magazine, Circa. NO 72 (1995)
"What Mary Duffy does here, in what becomes a powerful strategy, is an act of circumvention by being at the same time the object of, and the active subject in constructing our gaze. Where her story tells of the gaze that is directed at her, the audience is forced to examine their own gaze, which reproduces exactly the same conditions of looking as she tells of. The space which can exist between the represented and the representational has been collapsed. My gaze, as a member of the audience, is returned and I am implicated in this process of looking. It has revealed something of myself in me. This is why this performance works. It does its own job, right before your eyes. "
Stories of a Body was a performance created in 1989, and was supported by the Grace Fields Live Art Commission in Rochdale, Englad
©Mary Duffy, 1996
I was cast in the movie 'Fur'
I got an extraordinary opportunity when I was cast in the movie 'Fur'. The movie concerns five years in the life of the famous and controversial photographer Diane Arbus. The Director, Stephen Shainberg (Secretary 2002),committed to casting real disabled people in the movie, needed a woman without arms with performance experience.
My friend the actor Mat Fraser told me about the casting notice. Being assured of the sincerity of the Director, and wanting to encourage film makers to cast more disabled actors, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. There wasn't much time left... about ten days... and I quickly got my application together.
I really didn't think I would be selected as I was not American and a work visa would be extra difficult. However, I wanted to reward and encourage the Director and also the Casting Directors, Ellen Parks and her assistant, Amelia Raische. I decided to send a show reel in addition to the required mug shot and resume. This short video clip, recorded on a Sunday afternoon in November when the sun was low in the crisp blue sky, literally blew them away…The following is an extract from the production notes….
"The filmmakers held several open casting calls to assemble Lionel’s circle of friends and fellow travelers in the world of the unusual and extraordinary people. Shainberg sought to cast people who would not be familiar from other films or television programs, and he ruled out resorting to special effects. Perhaps the most challenging role to cast was that of Althea, Lionel’s armless friend. She is portrayed by an armless Irish woman named Mary Duffy. “She’d never been in a film, but she sent us a tape of herself that was just mind-blowing,” Shainberg recalls. “We brought her over and I met her and we talked about what it means to be in a movie. It was important that these people be real, that we not cast an actress and digitally remove her arms. I wanted Nicole and her character and the audience to know that those people in the movie are real, that there’s no fakery.”