Rachel Gadsden is an acclaimed artist whose work explores universal themes of fragility, survival and hope, drawing on her own personal experience of living with a chronic hereditary lung condition and visual impairment. She was made an Honorary Doctor of the University.
"It took me a while to realise I was meant to be an artist. My first diploma was in drama and I worked as an actress for a number of years. But the smoky environment had a catastrophic effect on my health. Eventually my lungs failed completely and I had to be fitted with a syringe driver that injects me with drugs once a minute. I couldn’t tour any more, so I needed to find something new to do. I made a picture for my husband and he said, I had no idea you could paint like this. This is what you should be doing.
Being out in the world
"For me, being an artist is about being out in the world. At first I did mainly commercial work. But I didn’t want to just make pretty pictures, so I went to art school. Then I had to find a way to make a living from my art. Going to drama school helped to teach me to be out there, rather than hiding in my studio. I think that helped make me more aware of and receptive to opportunities.
"Over the years, my work has shifted more and more into the public domain. After I did my masters in 2001, I started applying for residencies. The first was at a colliery in South Wales. Then I got an email from Hampton Court Palace saying they hadn’t had an artist in residence since Holbein and inviting me to apply. I ended up being there for a year. That led to an invitation to work with the Houses of Parliament on a project designed to raise awareness of mental health. Then I entered a competition as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad and won a commission to do a project called Unlimited Global Alchemy. I went to South Africa to work with people living with HIV and AIDS, which was an incredible experience.
Sharing human stories
"I feel a natural affinity with marginalised communities. Whether it’s those communities in South Africa, or artists with disabilities in Qatar and the Middle East, or working to create drawings and animations for the Paralympic Heritage Torch ceremony, there is something there that I’m drawn to. There’s a fragility that speaks to me. I don’t consciously live my life thinking that I might not be here tomorrow, but that awareness does underpin everything I do.
For me, art is about sharing human stories, and exploring the things that bind us together despite our differences.
"My work is very physical. I guess that’s my theatrical background showing through. But there’s also a part of me that thinks, I started late, I’m only going to get one chance at this, so I want to do everything – photography, film, theatre, dance, the whole lot. Now I’m starting to lose my sight, I am finding new ways to communicate my vision so I’ve started experimenting with sculpture and 3D virtual drawing.
Talking opening about disability
"I tried to hide my disability for a long time. I thought it would stop me getting work. When I applied for the residency at the colliery, I thought they’d never give it to a person with a lung condition. My twin sister made me a padded bag for my syringe driver and I wore a loose top. But the machine I had at the time made a noise, so every minute there’d be this beep. I had to pretend I didn’t know where it was coming from! Then I started to get a bit of a public persona and I began to feel uncomfortable that I wasn’t making use of the platform I’d been given.
So I made a decision that, whenever I could, I would talk openly about disability and do what I could to improve the status of people with disabilities in society.
"The project you’re working on is always the most exciting. But the work I’m doing at the moment with a group of bereaved women in Jerusalem has really struck a chord with me. I’m desperate to get back there and help them to tell their stories. It’s personal too. I grew up in the Middle East and when I last went I took my Mum’s diary where she talked about visiting the same places, and some of my Dad’s photos too. They both died recently and it helped me to feel closer to them. Their stories are mingled with mine and with these women’s too. We all feel love, and we all experience loss. It brings together a lot of the ideas I’m trying to express through my work."