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'I proved doctors wrong by walking out of hospital... and getting better made me a top artist'

When a freak skiing accident left Portadown father-of-two and high level civil servant Keith Sheppard paralysed from the waist down, doctors told him he’d probably never walk again. Then two amazing things happened...

By Una Brankin

Suspended upside-down in a deep, snow-filled gorge, Keith Sheppard spent the longest hour and-a-half of his life in agonising pain and unbearable fear. The horrific tumble on a ski slope left the then 51-year-old father-of-two paralysed from the waist down and fighting for his life in an Austrian hospital.

But while the freak accident rendered Keith partially disabled, it ultimately gave him a new lease of life and a burgeoning career as an artist. During his arduous rehabilitation, the former high-level civil servant was inspired by the titanium melded into his broken spine, to create exquisite and unique glass sculptures infused with metals, mostly copper and silver.

Now 57, his current collection has just been snapped up by a prestigious London gallery - with orders for more - after a wearying day in and out of taxis, with the help of crutches.

The Portadown man also has to use a wheelchair occasionally since his spinal cord injury in 2009.

"I don't know if you know this, but I'm slightly disabled and find it hard to stand up straight," he tells me from a cafe in St John's Wood in London. "I'm more interested in talking about my art, but I suppose the accident makes a good story."

You're telling me, as the saying goes. Keith was skiing with a group of friends in Austria when a ledge gave way, sending him hurtling head first into a ravine.

"I went upside down and into a tree," he recalls. "It cracked my helmet; I'd have been dead instantly without it, and my vertebrae snapped.

"My friends couldn't understand where I'd gone - they called a medical crew and they in turn had to call another one to get me out of there. I was conscious and in terrible pain until the doctor got through to give me an injection."

Given the height from which he had fallen, the rescue mission was complicated and lengthy. As an atheist, prayer didn't enter his thoughts.

"I didn't think I was going to die at that stage; I just thought about the consequences of being paralysed from the waist down. I couldn't feel anything. I just had this dreadful fear," he says.

"It was touch and go for three days. I had a swelling in the neck and they put me in a medically induced coma. My wife was flown over and I was in intensive care for two weeks in Austria. The surgeon told my wife I'd have less than a 3% chance of walking again, but didn't tell me."

The former personnel manager was flown to the Royal Victoria Hospital for a further week's treatment before being transferred to Musgrave Park, where a consultant delivered the grim prognosis.

"It's very hard to explain how I felt," he says, matter-of-factly. "Having been very active, I was being told I was never going to walk again. It was very hard to face that. But I told the consultant that I was going to walk out of there and get into my car - I remember him looking at me funny when I said that.

"Then I just focused on getting better. Every night lying in bed - I suppose it was a form of meditation - I tried to go inward to myself and will myself to get better."

The next six months were spent in gruelling sessions learning to walk again, an achievement which defied all medical expectations.

"I was strapped into a machine at first to stand up - I managed it for 15 minutes before I almost passed out," he recalls. "I gradually got stronger. Hydrotherapy was really the key to get me walking.

"The doctors were surprised at my progress, as they're fairly forthright (with giving their prognosis) in Musgrave."

Keith's mind-over-matter approach worked. As he predicted to the bemused consultant, he got onto a pair of crutches and drove himself home to Portadown, where he lives with his wife Denise.

Considering himself "more Irish than British", Keith had moved from Devon to east Tyrone in 1979 and later settled in the Seagoe area of Portadown, where his two grown-up sons, Gerald (26) and Josh (30), were reared.

Having accumulated a property portfolio over the years, Keith had planned to retire from his job in 2010, the year following his injury, and to go into property development.

But the near death experience put an end to that.

"I wouldn't be doing this if it weren't for the accident," he says. "I have a few properties already, but I began to work with the artist in residence at Musgrave, mostly watercolours.

"I found myself focusing on the spinal injury site, I suppose I just applied myself late at night and turned my mind on to where I was going next, with grit and mental determination to drag myself out of the wheelchair."

A fan of Belfast artist Terry Bradley, Keith (57) had studied A-level art but had left it by the wayside for three decades. So it was to his family's immense surprise that he took voluntary redundancy from his government job and went to train with the internationally renowned Karl Harron at his studio on the Ards Peninsula. By this stage, he had become fascinated with glass sculpture and began making the distinctive copper-infused vases and bowls that so impressed the Cecilia Coleman gallery in London. His visit was organised by Craft NI's Innovation Boost programme (see above), to which he is eternally grateful.

"I really wasn't expecting these orders," he admits, slightly breathless from his trip.

"I think it's because it's something very different to what's on the market. Glass isn't like metal or wood - you can do more with it.

"It's porous and it can be solid or liquid. You can shape it, colour it, bend it, put things in it. More scope with it than any other material substance, and of course there's the light reflective qualities."

Keith's also working on ideas for galleries in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and using leftover materials from his sculptures to create stunning wall art.

Deeply rooted in nature, his work is earthy and reflects the world around us, but hit with light, it transforms into dazzling spectacles of vivid colour, reminiscent of a sub aqua tropical sea scape or solar system.

With the guidance of the Boost programme, Keith's aim was to explore the feasibility of building a craft and design centre and workshop in the Portadown area.

"During my first mentoring session, it became clear that with being a sole trader and working in isolation, it's sometimes difficult to see between the trees and the wood," he says.

"Having an experienced mentor was key to identifying early that the reasoned and advisable next step in my business development was to separate the development of a studio space, to that of export marketing and business development. Focusing on that has really opened doors for me across the water, and I've been able to develop a new website and a brand."

During mentoring sessions, the ever pragmatic artist came up with the idea of recycling used glass from his vases and dishes for wall art. The first piece he created will be on display at the upcoming exhibition.

"I now have clear priorities for the coming 12 months and I'm excited about the development of my glass wall art range and all these the export opportunities.

"I got loads of ideas walking - with difficulty - the streets of London, and I can't wait to get working on them."

Inspired by the metal fused in his vertebrae - that allows him to walk - Keith's art blends improbable materials to create remarkably vibrant objects. He fuses glass with metals in a kiln at his Moyallen studio, at temperatures of up to 810 centigrade to achieve a stunning metamorphosis, reflecting "how my body has been irrevocably changed by nature".

Working with such high temperatures carries its own slight risks but they are the only ones Keith plans to take in the future.

"I haven't managed to get burned but I get cut by the the glass - I've wee slices like paper cuts all over my fingers. As for going back to a ski-slope - I think my wife would divorce me if I ever tried!

"I don't want to big myself up but the family is astonished and delighted at my success so far. It's something to keep me occupied every day, and it helps me cope mentally."

Keith's glass sculptures and wall art range from £40-£2,500. See www.keithsheppardglass.com

It’s time for some crafty work

Keith's sculptures will be on display as part of the Craft NI Innovation Boost Exhibition from this Saturday until next Friday at North Down Museum.

The 2014 Innovation Boost programme was aimed at mid-career craft businesses and was designed to support designer-makers who felt they needed new input or stimulus in either their creative process, design innovation or product sales, and professional support to boost to their craft business.

In October 2014, Craft NI took nine mid-career designer-makers - including Keith Sheppard - onto the mentoring and business development programme. Also showcasing their work at the exhibition are: Jude Cassidy, textile designer; Michelle Butler, ceramicist; Scott Benefield, glassblower; Elin Johnston, jewellery designer; Katie Brown, textile designer; Sheena Devitt, stone letter carver, Keith Sheppard, kiln-formed glass maker, Avril Manderson, jewellery designer and Ellen Cunningham, ceramicist.

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