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'I prefer to be seen as an artist first and foremost ... my cerebral palsy is always secondary'

 

Newtownards woman Rachel McBride tells Stephanie Bell how she has overcome her serious disability to gain international recognition as an artist and launch two innovative businesses, the latest of which is inspired by her baby daughter.

Internationally acclaimed artist, new mum and local entrepreneur, Rachel McBride doesn't let opportunities pass her by. In her latest business venture, Rachel has teamed up with local interior designer Karen Donaghy to bring Northern Ireland its first shop specialising only in children's interiors, Wu Concept.

The exciting new shop prides itself on bringing unique international brands to the province at affordable prices, while also creating dream modern nursery designs for local parents.

Rachel (33), who has cerebral palsy and first learned to paint with her mouth, is an established abstract artist who has fulfilled commissions for international art collections.

She is also the owner with husband Jonathan (32) of the very successful, Australian-inspired coffee shop and art gallery Haptik in Newtownards.

Born with cerebral palsy, a lifelong condition which affects her speech and her ability to walk and use her hands, Rachel is determined not to be defined by her disability.

Even though her condition means she needs help to dress and feed herself, she lets nothing stand in her way and as well as currently working hard to establish her new business, she is continuing to paint while also being a busy mum to 15-month-old Harper.

Just this week she was putting the finishes touches to art pieces for two international exhibitions, the Parallax Art Fair in London next week and the WE Contemporary in Rome later in the month.

Now, as a new business owner as well, life couldn't be busier.

Living with a disability is something she rarely talks about, but today she candidly reveals how challenging it can be and how she has to deal with being judged by strangers because she uses a wheelchair.

Simple everyday tasks most people take for granted can be hard for Rachel due to her cerebral palsy, but she usually finds a way around most things.

Since having her beautiful daughter, Harper, she says she has been disheartened by the number of people who express surprise when they discover she is a mum.

She says: "I don't usually talk about my cerebral palsy, not that I ever forget about it, as it's always there.

"I think I've just learnt how to live with it and even though it frustrates me, it's not going to change, this is it.

"I hate it. I hate that it restricts me physically, but more so I hate that it is the first thing that defines me.

"We live in a very judgemental world, and due to my speech difficulty, I think people are quick to assume that I don't fully understand or that I have a problem mentally, which is not the case.

"My disability affects me in a very physical way, I use a wheelchair and have very poor hand dexterity, which means that I need help with daily tasks such as feeding and dressing, therefore I have PAs who assist me.

"Even though it does affect our daily life, my husband and I tend to be quite private about what help I need.

"I often forget that people, even these days, are intrigued by it, they want to know how or what I need.

"I also forget how shocked some people are when they realise I have a daughter, although I'm glad to say it's more a minority that have this reaction.

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Rachel and her business partner, interior designer Karen Donaghy's new design space in Newtownards

"The other day I was chatting to a customer and I mentioned something about my 15-month-old daughter and I thought the lady was going to take a stroke. Although I'm glad to say this is a rare occurrence.

"Most people are very patient. Some days my speech will be worse than others. Unfortunately this becomes a vicious cycle, because if I know someone is feeling awkward and they don't like to ask me to repeat what I said, this will in turn make my speech even worse.

"I think it's funny that people don't ever like to ask me to say it again, yet if they were speaking to someone in a different language, they would have to ask them to repeat, wouldn't they?"

While her disability presents everyday challenges, it is obvious that Rachel thrives on pushing herself.

A full life, juggling a new baby with her art and the family coffee shop, just got even busier with the launch of her new design business.

It was when she employed an interior designer to create a dream nursery for Harper while she was pregnant that she saw a gap in the market for her latest venture, Wu Concept.

She was so blown away by the Scandi-inspired nursery created for her daughter by local designer Karen Donaghey, that the two women decided to offer the same look to others.

She explains: "Karen and I clicked straight away. When I was pregnant, I found it challenging physically, as well as being really unsure of myself.

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One of Rachel’s colourful abstract paintings

"Karen was an angel, giving me much needed support at such an exciting time and she gave us the nursery of our dreams.

"We always talked about how good it would be to do something with all these beautiful brands that aren't available here.

"Karen told me about her dream of having a shop and asked me if I'd like to be involved. We both had a real passion to do something which would provide for our kids and we could see a gap in the market.

"We both have different strengths, which means it's a good partnership."

Wu Concept is a modern Children's Interiors and Homewares brand inspired by a love of European design and a desire to create beautiful spaces.

The women have brought unique brands to Northern Ireland for the first time, including Ferm Living, Lucky Boy Sunday, OMM and Maileg, to name but a few. They want the shop to be a place where people can pick up something they won't get anywhere else.

Rachel says: "Wu is not just interiors or accessories; it is not just a brand, it's a location and venue for mothers, fathers, grandparents and friends who are looking for an extraordinary gift for their extraordinary little person."

However, her new business venture will not see this renowned artist hang up her brushes just yet.

Originally from Newtownards, Rachel studied for a BDes Degree in Design and Communication at Ulster University.

After graduating, she worked as a freelance graphic designer for three years, before committing full-time to a career as an abstract artist in 2012 and in the same year, was thrilled when Degree Art in London offered to represent her.

She also completed a two month residency in Tasmania, Australia, in February 2013, when she was offered a solo exhibition in Melbourne which led to various exhibitions, as well as working on the set design for a Melbourne Spring Fashion Week event.

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One of Rachel’s colourful abstract paintings

She now specialises in bespoke commissions and has sold to private collections internationally.

After learning to paint with her mouth, Rachel discovered that using her hands allowed her to express herself more on canvas and she sees her art as an expression of her subconscious thoughts.

She says: "I prefer to be seen as an artist first and foremost, and my disability is always secondary.

"It does not define me, although I'm not so naive as to believe that it has not had a dramatic impression on my artistic style and an advantage in some art opportunities.

"I see myself not as an inspiration, but hope my work inspires.

"It was actually my occupational therapist who thought it would be a good idea for me to paint with my head.

"This planted a seed, but I don't think anyone was aware of where or how far it would take me.

"I mainly worked in watercolours, creating landscapes, but when studying for exams, I realised that I needed much more detail in my work.

"I faced the frustrating task of trying to use my hands. Although I had attempted this before and failed, I persevered and discovered that I could get a different kind of detail or texture in each painting.

"By embracing my involuntary movements and bringing them into my work instead of fighting against them, and working on large-scale canvases, I found an abstract style that lends itself to my movements - I could be expressive with paint!

"I fell in love with abstract art, preferring to abandon recognisable subject matter for a world of abstraction.

"My paintings are large abstract works, which concentrate more on colour and texture rather than form and composition.

"Instead of being objective, they express feelings and thoughts in a visual way. My subconscious directs my hands in order to express what my mouth cannot verbalise; ultimately as I paint my subconscious is given a paintbrush."

Becoming a mum in July 2016 has, she says, influenced her art work.

Harper is undoubtedly the centre of her world, with her many other commitments planned around her daughter's needs. She says: "Since Harper's been born, it's even more important to juggle so many different things as well as good time management, which is a constant learning curve, as Harper's my number one priority, and most artwork is created during nap times.

"Her birth in 2016 was a new chapter for me and it has had a dramatic impact on my work, as I see a great sense of freedom in my style and evolving palette.

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Rachel with business partner, interior designer Karen Donaghy

"I think this is due to my life changing experience of becoming a mother, and being exposed to the true essence of beauty the first time I held my daughter in my arms - perfection! She is my endless muse."

Rachel and husband Jonathan spent a year in Australia in 2013 when she was invited to do an art residency and exhibition there.

They both fell in love with the Melbourne coffee scene and when they returned home to Newtownards a year later they decided they wanted to bring a little bit of Melbourne with them and opened Haptik.

The ground floor of the Frances Street property was transformed into a trendy coffee house, while the first floor is a gallery space featuring artists from across Ireland and now also houses Rachel and Karen's new interiors business.

Says Rachel: "At the beginning, we were there from 7am-9pm, as we were determined to make a success of it.

"It took a couple of years of solid commitment between my husband and I, during which time we lived, breathed and didn't sleep, Haptik!

"It's only now that I've been able to step back to concentrate on other things, and Wu Concept came along.

"Our aim is that Wu will be a place which people will identify with luxury brands at affordable prices perfect for any occasion.

"It is an exciting new venture and we are both confident that people will love it."

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