Celebrated artist and disability advocate

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

Irish artist and disability advocate Maeve McCormack Nolan has died.

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

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

An advocate for artists with disabilities, she regularly interviews newspaper journalists and has appeared on television shows such as Kenny Live and Open House. At a time when many people with disabilities lived quiet, unappreciated lives, she said, “We must not hide, we are like you.”

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

McCormack Nolan described painting as a form of self-hypnosis that allowed her to forget the pain caused by her illness. “The smell of canvas and oil is like oxygen to me,” she said in an 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 boarded secondary school at St Leo’s College, Carlow and won her first Texaco art award at age 13, then taught art at the Moylish School of Technology (now part of the Technological University of the Shannon) for two years.

McCormack Nolan developed the symptoms of multiple sclerosis after a car accident at age 19, although full diagnosis would take several years. She met Limerick businessman/farmer Val Nolan when she was 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 thirties, but she continued to paint, moving from small detailed watercolors to larger impressionist oil paintings. She often spoke about how her nose and face were always covered in paint because she was standing right up to the screen. And she used to tell people, half-jokingly, that focusing so close to her paintings was a form of eye exercise. Her son, Val Nolan, recalls working so tightly with the wet oils that her hair stuck to the paint and vice versa.

“MS affected my mother’s vision and mobility throughout her adult life, but she refused to let it rule her life or work. She said that many times because a disability takes away [many] Of your decisions, you must maximize the skills that remain,” he said.

Anne Flood, who was the managing director of the Guinness Hop Store in the 1990s and later became a close friend of McCormack Nolan, said she was a very positive person. “She never ceased to amaze me. She enjoyed life and never let her situation overwhelm her. She never lost her courage and for someone who could not take notes [due to her disability]she had a wonderful ability to remember details from every aspect of life.”

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

She was a longtime member of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland and her pictures graced the covers of their newsletters in the 1990s. In an interview with The Irish Times in 1992, she said: “If my life had taken a different path, I would not have gained the insights I had.”

McCormack Nolan also worked to break down unconscious prejudices against people with disabilities. Bewildered by the lack of mirrors in disabled toilets, she wrote letters to various restaurant and mall managers, urging them to install mirrors, which they did. She once claimed in an interview that when she first saw the results of her campaign, she was tempted to pull out her lipstick and write “Maeve was here” over the mirror.

McCormack Nolan fought hard to keep her independence for as long as possible. In the last two decades of her life, her MS worsened, confining her to a wheelchair and largely depriving her of the ability to paint and participate in cultural activities and dialogue. However, with her husband’s dedication and support, she lived much longer than her doctors predicted.

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

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