Swan Hill artist and disability advocate Theresa Edwards calls herself a “true survivor” after facing challenges from both her physical and mental health.
Born to a mother from the Yorta Yorta Nation and an Italian father, Theresa’s family has a long line of creativity and advocacy.
“My love for art could go back to my great-grandfather (carver) Joseph Walsh,” Theresa said.
“Then there’s my uncle Kennedy Edwards, who is a representative for Aboriginal housing.
“In fact a lot of my family has been involved in the community and in advocacy.”
One of the most important people in Theresa’s life is her mother, Lexie Edwards, who is also an artist, primarily known for her work with ceramics.
“My mum used to be really into education and health advocacy and would be on all the committees,” she said.
“She was also a member of the stolen generation, along with her five brothers.
“They were all taken and put into a Ballarat orphanage, and then onto foster families, but were able to find each other.”
Growing up, Theresa initially thought she was the eldest of three sisters until the age of 10 when a family secret was revealed.
“One day I woke up and these two older girls were in my house,” she said.
It turned out Theresa’s mother had two daughters as a teenager, who were taken away from her as part of the stolen generation.
“My nan searched for the girls for my mum and found them,” she said.
“It was a shock to find out that I had two more sisters.”
Theresa said she had a close bond with all four of her sisters, Debbie, Darlene, Angela and Shiralee.
She did her primary schooling at Swan Hill North Primary School and attended Swan Hill Technical College.
At the age of 14, Theresa got her first job as a receptionist at AMP Insurance in town.
She then went onto work at the Swan Hill and District’s Aboriginal Co-Operative as their first cleaner.
“I was getting $80 a week at the time and used think I was rich,” she said.
“I wanted to be like my mum because I was so proud of her and her involvement in the community.”
The Co-Op would be a workplace she would have a connection to for a long time.
“I have volunteered there for a number of years,” she said.
“I’ve always loved cooking so I wanted to help out any way I could.”
In 2014, Theresa’s life changed forever when she presented to Swan Hill District Health after feeling a terrible pain in her back.
It was revealed she had an abscess on her spinal cord.
She spent eight months at the hospital and lost feeling in the lower half of her body, leaving her unable to walk.
“It was the worst feeling of my life not being able to use my legs,” she said.
Currently, Theresa uses a motorised wheelchair to get around.
“Hopefully one day I’ll be able to walk a bit, but it will never be the same,” she said.
One thing that has kept Theresa strong throughout difficult times in her life is her passion for creating art.
Theresa started making art in 2003 when she moved to Mildura for a few years.
In Mildura, she met 93-year-old artist from Alice Springs, Glenda Hayes, at an Elders luncheon.
“I would watch her create her traditional art,” she said.
“She bought me a book of canvases and some paints out of her own money and told me to give it a go.
“It took me a couple of days and I came up with a butterfly design.
“I took around to Glenda and she told me it was beautiful, which I couldn’t believe.”
Theresa ended up selling the painting for $200.
“That made me realise that I could do something special,” she said.
“Every painting I create tells a story; I don’t call them paintings unless they tell a story.”
Theresa sells her art privately and through word-of-mouth.
She had an exhibition at the Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery in 2014 called Life Cycle and often exhibits her work at art shows through SuniTAFE.
In her personal life, Theresa has been with her partner Paul Kirby for over 30 years.
The couple have two children, a daughter Ramptha-Lee and son Toby-Lee.
Through Toby, she also has two young grandchildren, Chance and Matilda.
“They keep me going and inspire me to create art and to survive,” she said.
“I would call myself a true survivor because I’m still here after all I’ve been through.
“Today I stand up for my Elders and people with disabilities.”
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