“We are great pals,” says Karolina Poplawska, a facilitator of Crawford Art Gallery Supported Studio, a sustained creative environment that fosters and supports the art practice of individuals with health or social needs.
“Yvonne and I have formed a relationship where we communicate with each other. We focus on ability and ways of expressing ourselves.
“Creative people respond well in this environment and they can thrive here. The artists find that they have a lot in common artistic-wise.”
Yvonne Condon and I find that we have a few things in common. We are both devoted fans of EastEnders and put everything on hold in case we miss an episode. Yvonne has perfected a lovely thick plait in her hair. I am still trying to master the hairstyle, and she has promised to demonstrate the technique the next time we meet. And, while I write very fast, Yvonne can capture a person’s likeness on canvas, in a matter of 10 minutes. She is fast with a paint brush.
“If you sat there for about 10 minutes, she would paint you,” says Yvonne’s mother, Margaret.
As if on cue, the EastEnders theme tune comes on and Yvonne give me the thumbs up to come and join her to watch our favourite soap.
First, I must admire Yvonne’s fabulous artwork — anyway, I have the programme recording I tell her. I made sure of that before I left home.
Yvonne paints on a large scale and she had been looking for an outdoor location for some time for a new work. The meter box on Princes Street in Cork was an ideal location for her and with the support of Cork City Council and its ‘Reimagining Cork City’ programme. Princes Street traders, Arts and Disability Ireland, (ADI) and Crawford Art Gallery, this was made possible.
Yvonnes breathless artistic pace could be likened to her speed on the running track or in the water, for the talented thirty-something has a wall full of trophies and medals from both running and swimming events in the Special Olympics.
Yvonne cannot speak. She is deaf and partially blind. She suffers from a rare congenital anomaly which affects her sight, hearing and speech called Fraser’s Syndrome.
And even though Yvonne has partial autism as well, this special lady has a wondrous talent. She communicates love and visual language in a rare art form which turns the ordinary into the extraordinary.
“That portrait is of her older sister, Ciara, and her husband Billy,” says Margaret, as I marvel at a magnificent artwork hanging in the lounge of the Condon Ballinacurra home. It is amazing.
“Her sister Ciara adores her. Jimmy and I have never treated her any differently to her sister.
“The nurses became Yvonne’s second family. It was revealed to us that she would be blind and it was unlikely that she would ever walk. It was a totally random condition, and Yvonne remains the only person in Ireland that has Fraser’s Syndrome,” says Margaret.
Isn’t it marvellous, then, that mother and daughter walk together every day? On their way to Midleton, people greet them and always have a friendly word for Yvonne.
“It is great,” Margaret agrees.
“That is down to my own perseverance and to Yvonne’s strong character too.”
Margaret needed to have more than motivation to persevere in order to deal with the problems that her daughter faced.
“She was the longest resident in the neo-natal unit in the hospital,” says Margaret.
Margaret, a mother with a special in-built instinct, nurtured the little baby, who weighed only 7 pounds at 14 months old.
“I fed her with a 2.5 mg syringe,” says Margaret. “Just like a little bird. And she thrived.
“The hardest time was when it was time for her to go to bed. One of us stayed awake all night. We used to try to keep her mouth open with a soother because she could only breathe through her mouth.”
And she walked at aged two.
At the tender age of three and a half, Yvonne made the journey to Great Ormond Street Hospital.
“She travelled to the hospital 14 times in her first year,” says Margaret.
It was in the London hospital that Fraser’s Syndrome was diagnosed and the brave girl underwent numerous surgeries to give her the best chances.
“She went through the mill,” says Margaret. “And she was sad and we were sad that she had to travel to Dublin to attend a mainstream school for the deaf.
“Every weekend she came home we could see her spirits lift. And when she was about to leave, she became despondent again. It was nobody’s fault. It was circumstances.”
But Yvonne persevered and achieved great accolades at secondary school. She was a brave person and didn’t give up easily. But she was a different person when she started her illustrious career and progression in the COPE Foundation in Cork.
“That’s when we got our daughter back,” says Margaret.
And that is when Yvonne’s mentor and facilitator, Hermann Marbe, spotted and encouraged Yvonne’s rare but natural artistic talent, at the John Bermingham Centre in Glasheen.
“It came out of the blue,” says Margaret.
“Hermann spotted Yvonne’s art and he promoted it.”
Margaret says art took away Yvonne’s disability.
Yvonne has made great strides in the art world.
“She has exhibited her work many times in the last few years, including the Crawford Art Gallery; she has exhibited in Cobh and in Ina McCarthy’s flower shop in Midleton.”
As we speak, Yvonne is planning a trip to Bristol with Hermann and Jessica Carson of CIT Crawford College of Art and Design. The programme will explore the theme of relationships within practices of and with artists with intellectual disabilities.
“She is really excited,” says Margaret.
Margaret’s own life must have been compromised somewhat when she devoted so much of it to her precious daughter?
“People often say to me; ‘how did you do it?’” says Margaret.
“When you have to do something in life, then you do it. You have no choice. And yet you do have a choice. And I chose to look after her. There was never a question of putting Yvonne into an institution,” says Margaret.
“And we never hid her away. She always came to mass with us and she always came on holiday with us.”
It wasn’t always easy.
“Over the years, I was always apologising when Yvonne got upset or frustrated. She wasn’t able to express herself,” says Margaret, who is searingly honest.
“I couldn’t accept that Yvonne wasn’t the same as any other child. Now I don’t excuse it. She is who she is.”
And she is very much her own person.
“Yes. She certainly is,” says Margaret.
“And her art is a wonderful way of expressing herself. I see the love in her portraits. When she is happy, I am happy.”
And Margaret has made other people happy.
“I have made good friends with families in Wales and in Scotland,” she says.
“Things would have been a lot easier for us, if more were known about Fraser’s almost thirty years ago,” says Margret, who is a special needs assistant at St Paul’s and Scoil Bernadette in Montenotte.
She also learned to sign so that she can communicate with her daughter.
“Yvonne loves reading and she has joined the local library,” says the proud mother. “We read and sign together. So we can both enjoy the books.”
Yvonne likes to garden as well and she simply loves animals in every shape and form.
Margaret is justifiably proud of her talented daughter. She admits the battle was difficult against the odds.
“Today, when people look at Yvonne and accept her for who she is, I know that is the battle won.”
Yvonne is an artist member of Crawford Art Gallery Supported Studios. They enable marginalised individuals to develop their professional practice, providing technical artistic support, promoting artists in the marketplace and building audiences outside health and social care settings.