I’ve come to learn that inspiring people usually don’t step out to try to be inspiring. In my experience, inspiring people are so because they are doing their Work. Their Work being their soul’s purpose, in service to others. In real life, we get to be a student at the feet of a handful of these people if we’re lucky. To learn by example.
I met Nuala in my mid-teens. I was preparing for the big Irish state exams, the Leaving Certificate, and I was taking art among other things. Art is a passion subject and, let’s just say, I don’t believe my secondary school art teacher was living her most fulfilled life.
So I was sent to Nuala for grinds. To call her simply an art tutor or teacher is too shallow but that’s what she entered my life as. Because the three years I spent metaphorically sitting at her feet were nothing short of transformative. Nuala was beyond the labels of ‘teacher’ or ‘woman’ or ‘artist’.
Nuala was to reveal herself as a force.
She was a six-foot-two, sexagenarian mountain of unapologetic attitude and knowledge. And she was brassy. Decked out in her gold earrings and bangles and rings, collected on her world travels, her aura glowed. With a raspy voice and a gaze that demanded respect, she dominated. Every cell of her spoke of having wholly lived.
And over three years, I had the gorgeous luck of being aligned with Nuala and I got to take accidental glimpses into that life. Accidental because she didn’t often intentionally speak of herself or her life. She vocally warned against too much ‘navel gazing’ as she called it. So what I learned was gleaned and I cannot imagine the story of her life in fully, embroidered technicolour.
Nuala grew up on the east coast of Ireland in a fairly well-off family. Her home had sash windows that would be propped open with books that would soon get warped from weight and rain. During the war she spent time in Belgium, binding and smuggling counterfeit banned books. She had travelled the world and spoken to artists and writers and creatives. She loved handwriting with ‘character’, roughly meaning a hand that gave our regular school teachers nightmares. She had piercing blue eyes and sun-spotted, tanned skin. She beat cancer four times by, I swear, sheer force of will. She wasn’t done yet and I got the impression that Nuala was intending to live every ounce of life until she decided she was done, no questions asked.
To us, her little class of misfits from schools all over the area, she assigned books from Gombrich and Berger. Obtuse books that delved not only into facts, to be regurgitated at exam time, but talked about ideas. How do we view art? Why do we see what we see? My little, unchallenged teenage mind was shocked. Because come hell or high water Nuala wasn’t just doing to teach us about Carravagio’s works but how to think critically. A skill being extinguished daily by the national education curriculum.
But she herself never looked at a book that I could see. She never referenced a textbook in the three years I sat in her presence. She knew it. No matter what tangent we’d end up on, and in art that could be anything, Naula proved herself eloquent and informed.
As a presence in my life, Nuala was a bullet. She was the kind of woman I wish every girl could encounter. I don’t remember every lesson. I don’t know what year Khalo died. But I remember looking at this woman and knowing she was something special. She was living her purpose. This was her Work.
I don’t think of Nuala as a teacher or tutor. To me, a decade later, Nuala remains one of the most unapologetic beacons of living I have ever crossed paths with. She represents a life lived. An example of our innate power surfaced. The epitome of a nasty woman.