“MY cremation was booked,” says artist Jean Gardiner, referring to an horrific assault which saw the Passage West-based woman end up in a coma in Cork University Hospital for six weeks in 2005.
The incident, for which nobody was charged, set Jean back hugely. She had to relearn how to walk as her heels were badly damaged from bed sores. People thought she would die.
Her recovery, “thanks to modern medicine” prompted one of the doctors at the hospital to call her ‘the miracle woman’.
Jean, who is in her 50s, has a black and white photographic exhibition at St Peter’s. It’s her first ever show, prompted by the death of a very close friend from cancer.
“When Deirdre died, I felt the clock ticking and things moving on. My brother died also.”
Having studied photography at St John’s College, as well as having attended the Crawford College of Art and Design in 2015 for a year, Jean felt it was time to put on an exhibition. What took her so long to show off her work? She says she was scared of judgement, of people’s opinions.
“I was afraid of people saying ‘who do you think you are?’ I was raised with that sort of thing, the idea that I might have notions. But you have to have notions. You only have one life. You can’t live under a rock.”
Entitled Perspective, Jean’s arresting photographs are of Cork scenes and buildings, portraying unusual aspects of well-known city features. She generally doesn’t take straight-forward shots, but rather zones in on whatever strikes her as being quirky and worthy of being captured with her Canon camera. Some scenes include lovers in the background. Jean, who is married and has two grown-up children, says she is “a sucker for romance”.
Jean says she is “a born artist”.
“Everything I see, I see creatively. I want to record what’s happening at the present moment and photography is the best medium for that. I’m a sensitive soul. I see things that maybe the majority of people overlook.
“Beauty is everywhere. Mother Nature is my god. If you give yourself time to sit and look and listen, the beauty can become apparent. I don’t mean that in an airy fairy way. I think that particularly in first world countries, the fact that nature is the creator is overlooked, especially with the environmental crisis.”
The exhibition includes a shot of Mary Elmes’ Bridge at night time with reflections of it on the river. There is also a photograph of a broken window with tattered curtains, part of a derelict house in Gurranabraher.
“I’m a lonely old soul. It struck me as a lonely scene. When I saw the window, I thought of all the lives that must have lived behind it and how things have changed.”
As a result of the attack on Jean, she has acquired brain injury which, she says, means her senses “are very heightened.”
On the night of the attack, Jean was walking home in Passage West.
“It was our wedding anniversary. There was a lovely moon. The artist in me decided that I’d walk away on my own and look at it. A guy hit me in the back of my head with a rock. It happened next to the water.
“The rock knocked me out. The last thing I remember is grit under my hands and his face being too close to me. I must have fought back. I ended up in the water of the estuary. I don’t know who found me and rang the ambulance. I had been left floating unconscious.
“My family was told to come to the hospital. It was touch and go. After six weeks, I woke up from the coma. It took me nearly three years to relearn walking. I was in a wheelchair. Then I was using a zimmer frame and then a walking stick for two years. I got pneumonia, I had hypothermia and I got an MRSA so I was in isolation at the hospital for a while. But when I started to feel better, I wanted to do something with my hands which had pins and needles. My daughter and her boyfriend got me Colour by Numbers so that got my hands going again.”
Jean, who says there must have been witnesses to her assault, adds that there was no forensic evidence because she had been in the water too long.
“I’m fighting PTS (post traumatic stress) all the time. I have a lot of anxiety. I go to counselling every week. It helps.”
After the assault, Jean didn’t want to live in Passage West any more. So the family moved to an eco-cottage near the Comeragh Mountains in west Waterford that they had previously purchased. When the economic crash happened, the house in Passage West went into negative equity.
“My daughter and her boyfriend were working so they rented it and paid the mortgage. We’re back in Passage West for two years. We’ll have to sell the house there because it’s in negative equity and it’s too big for the two of us.”
Jean used to run her own bookshop in Passage West but the assault put paid to that. “I haven’t been able to work since but I’m lucky to have my husband, Pearse (McLellan) to support me. I’m blessed that way but I still want to be doing. I have a very active and creative mind,” says Jean.
She shows her work regularly at the Fair Alternative Market at the Unitarian Church on Princes Street on Saturdays.
Jean’s exhibition at St Peter’s continues for the month of October.