Maeve McCormack Nolan obituary: Celebrated artist and disability advocate

US ambassador says Limerick artist’s ‘spirit infused everyone she met’

Maeve McCormack Nolan was a painter of vibrant floral and landscape works in oil

Maeve McCormack Nolan was a painter of vibrant floral and landscape works in oil

 

Maeve McCormack Nolan 
Born: January 9th, 1953
Died: April 16th, 2022

Irish artist and advocate for people with disabilities Maeve McCormack Nolan has died.

A painter of vibrant floral and landscape works in oil, McCormack Nolan enjoyed a high profile in the 1990s with four sold-out shows in the Guinness Hop Store, Dublin, opened by president Mary Robinson, US ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith and other luminaries of the time. At the opening of her exhibition in 1997, Kennedy Smith said, “Maeve McCormack Nolan is one of life’s unique individuals whose spirit infuses everyone she meets.”

McCormack Nolan also exhibited at the Hunt Museum and the Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick and at the Irish Life Centre in Dublin. And her work is held in public collections of the IDA, Guinness, Shannon Development and at An Garda Síochána College in Templemore, Co Tipperary.

As a champion of artists with disabilities, she regularly did interviews with newspaper journalists and appeared on television shows such as Kenny Live and Open House. At a time when many people with disabilities lived quiet, unacknowledged lives, she said, “We must not be hidden away, we are the same as you.”

In 1991, McCormack Nolan was chosen as one of several artists with disabilities whose work was selected by the National Rehabilitation Board for an exhibition at the European Community (EC) – now the European Union – headquarters in Brussels during the Irish presidency of the EC.

McCormack Nolan described painting as a form of self-hypnosis which allowed her to forget about the pain caused by her illness. “The smell of canvas and oil is like oxygen to me,” she said in one interview

Maeve was the second of six children, born to Paddy and Georgina McCormack. Her father ran McCormack’s Joinery, in Ardagh, Co Limerick. She attended secondary school in St Leo’s College, Carlow, as a boarder and won her first Texaco art award when she was 13. Following her Leaving Certificate, she studied to become an art teacher at the Limerick School of Art, graduating in 1974. She then taught art for two years in the Moylish School of Technology (now part of the Technological University of the Shannon).

McCormack Nolan developed the symptoms of multiple sclerosis following a car crash at the age of 19 although the full diagnosis would take several years. She met the Limerick businessman/farmer Val Nolan while still in her late teens and the couple married in 1973 and settled in Ardagh. Their son, Val, was born in 1982.

McCormack Nolan’s eyesight began to deteriorate when she was in her 30s yet she continued to paint, moving from small detailed watercolours to larger impressionistic oil paintings. She often spoke about how her nose and face were always covered in paint from being right up against the canvas. And, she used to tell people half-jokingly that focusing at such close range to her paintings was a form of eye exercise. Her son, Val Nolan, recalls how she worked so closely to the wet oils that her hair used to stick to the paint and vica versa.

“MS affected my mother’s sight and mobility throughout her adult life but she refused to let it define her life or work. She often said that because a disability takes away [many] of your choices, you have to maximise the abilities which remain,” he said.

Anne Flood, who was the general manager of the Guinness Hop Store in the 1990s and later became a close friend of McCormack Nolan, said that she was a very positive person. “She never ceased to amaze me. She enjoyed living and never let her situation overcome her. She never lost her spirit and for someone who couldn’t take notes [due to her disability], she had a wonderful power of recall for details of every aspect of life.”

McCormack Nolan described painting as a form of self-hypnosis which allowed her to forget about the pain caused by her illness. “The smell of canvas and oil is like oxygen to me,” she said in one interview. She continued to paint for as long as she could despite the progressive loss of her eye sight, the constant pain, muscle fatigue and periods of immobility.

She was a long-time member of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland and her paintings graced the covers of its newsletters throughout the 1990s. In an Irish Times interview in 1992, she said, “If my life had taken a different path, I would not have gained the insights I did.”

McCormack Nolan also worked to tackle unconscious prejudices against those with disabilities. Taken aback by the lack of mirrors in disabled toilets, she wrote letters to various restaurants and shopping centre managers, asking them to install mirrors, which they subsequently did. She once claimed in an interview that the first time she saw the results of her campaign, she was tempted to take out her lipstick and write, “Maeve was here” across the mirror.

McCormack Nolan fought hard to retain her independence for as long as possible. In the last two decades of her life, her MS became worse, confining her to a wheelchair and largely robbing her of her ability to paint and to partake in cultural activities and dialogues. Yet with the dedication and support of her husband, she lived for much longer than her doctors had predicted.

Maeve McCormack Nolan is survived by her husband, Val, her son, Val, sisters, Annette, Marie, Patricia and Elizabeth, nieces, nephews and a wide circle of friends. Her brother, Paddy, predeceased her.