A Derry-based artist who is exhibiting a series of striking works in the city centre said she hopes it will help others going through bereavement.
Strabane native Maryellen Bell lost her husband of 40 years, Yorkshireman Tony, six years ago to leukaemia.
The couple’s experiences during his illness and Maryellen’s path following Tony’s death have led to the powerful ‘To Reach Oceans of Bluebells’ exhibition.
The indoor exhibition is currently running at the Garden of Reflection premises on Bishop Street (beside Bedlam) and will be in place until Friday, opening daily from 10am.
Tony, a maths inspector, and Maryellen, and English and drama teacher, had spent most of their married life together in Leeds, raising their four daughters there, and had written several books together, before deciding to relocate to Ireland nine years ago.
“They say Derry women bring their men back, so I became one of the women who brought their men back. But it was voluntary on his part,” Maryellen says.
They set up home in Creeslough on Donegal, but when Tony fell ill and needed routine treatment they relocated to Derry.
Describing the impact of the illness, Maryellen said: “It was a hell of a time. It’s very hard when somebody is terminally ill. For quite a while it was the City Hospital, so travelling up every day. Then they decided they couldn’t do anything really. He was in and out of hospital then because with leukaemia, any infection and he was in immediately.”
Tony was 65 when he died and Maryellen recalls: “I ran away to Cambodia after he died. The loneliness was terrible, so I went away and did some voluntary work for a while. That was how I dealt with it, kept busy, busy, busy doing things.
“I honestly think nobody understands the isolation of it. It’s terrible. It’s very different and it’s very strange.”
Now in her early 70s, Maryellen said she considers herself “very lucky” to be able to be so active, and even being diagnosed with macular degeneration hasn’t held her back.
“Besides that, I’m very fit so I can go out to dancing and go out and about, go for walks. My eyes don’t keep me back in that sense, and I’m always thankful that I am physically fit.”
After moving to Ireland, Maryellen had begun an Arts Degree at the North West Regional College’s Limavady campus and her husband during his illness encouraged her not to give up. She managed to finish the degree largely at home while caring for her husband.
“I loved it and would thoroughly recommend it,” she said. “I think Tony wanted me to finish it because it helps, and I think he realised it. I think he probably felt it would be therapeutic as well as everything else, and it was. Going into something where you can get a focus helps.”
She said that she also felt the support in Derry was a great help for her.
“You have great people in Derry, there’s a huge network in Derry, and a lot of it is women helping women,” she said.
The exhibition features a large conceptual piece- a quilt fashioned out of incontinence pads, which she used as a symbol of “my worst possible scenario in life when you are totally dependant”, with floral art work painted into the pads and poetic words framing the piece.
The exhibition’s title centres on the special place bluebells had in the couple’s lives.
“During the time when Tony was ill we had some of the really best moments, because you have nowhere to go really. You are in that space. You are really there and you be there. “
Part of the exhibition is a video featuring at its centre an interview between Melvyn Bragg and Denis Potter, while the playwright was terminally ill.
In it, Potter speaks of how his perception changed, and how the natural world became more fascinating and relevant.
The video also features the guitar music of Maryellen’s late husband and moving images of snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells- all of which have an abiding symbolism for the couple and their story- with poignant words from Maryellen.
Along with the succession of striking oil paintings at the exhibition, it all feeds in to the theme of light, recovery, and what Maryellen terms “nature’s capacity of regenerate”.
Check out the exhibition , which is open through until Friday, at the Bishop Street indoor Garden of Reflection gallery premises,