Eight years ago Gary Nicholson was working as a joiner and, in his own words, living the life of “a normal bloke”. Then, overnight, spinal surgery saw him become unemployed, and permanently wheelchair bound.

But Gary found a new direction in life. Now he's on the verge of graduating with a Masters degree in Design from the University of Sunderland and has just had the first exhibition of his work, Regeneration, based on his experiences of turning tragic illness into works of art.

“My dad was a joiner, and he used to have a workshop attached to our house," he says. "When I was a kid I used to be always messing around and making stuff for myself, and I always wanted to be a joiner just like my dad – but he wanted me to go to school and study art. All I wanted to do is go out and earn a living.”

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Gary had happily worked as a joiner for almost 30 years, but in 2009 doctors discovered a tumour on his spinal chord. An operation successfully removed the tumour, but the surgery led to Gary being paraplegic, and facing the reality of being wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. “My whole career was gone overnight, and I basically sat around not knowing what you do,” he says. “Then a friend I knew from school who was studying for a degree in Glass and Ceramics suggested that I come along and have a go at the National Glass Centre. That got me into art, and eventually art therapy classes at the Art Studio in Hendon.”

The Lottery-funded studio gave Gary a direction and a passion, although he admits he treated his art therapy like a job: “I used to go at 9am and finish at 5pm – and the next logical step was to go to university, so I applied to Sunderland, got in, and ended up doing a degree in Illustration.” Gary graduated last year, and immediately signed up to study MA Design. This week he opened his first solo exhibition, Regeneration, at the University of Sunderland’s Showcase Gallery.

“Art therapy changed me,” says Gary. “I went from being a joiner to a Masters student thanks to it, and it occurred to me that the best thing to study would be how art therapy affected me. At the time I didn’t appreciate how much bigger the mental effect of my disability was compared to the physical effect. My response to becoming paraplegic was just to buckle down and get on with it – but looking back now, I realise just how much it did mess with my head.

“I used to play squash, I was a keen mountain biker, I’d done karate since I was 11, and then it just stopped. Suddenly, every day seemed very long, and I realise now that the real fight was conquering my mind. It sounds a daft thing to say for a man in a wheelchair, but I didn’t want to just sit around. Art became my job, I’d go out of the house first thing on the morning and come back at tea time. It beats watching Jeremy Kyle!”

Now, with the exhibition open and his MA Design course almost complete, Gary is looking to his next challenge. He and fellow student Will Johnson are investigating how they can start their own community art therapy business, with the guidance of the university’s business start-up unit, the Enterprise Place. Gary worked with users of Middlesborough Spinal Unit as part of his Masters. Using Z Studio they created artwork in a virtual space – something which Gary believes is the next step for art therapy.

“Art therapy has been around since the Second World War, but it is still very stuck in traditional ideas of painting, drawing and sculpting," he says. "With virtual technology there is a new tool we can use in art therapy, the creative possibilities of which are almost limitless.”

Manny Ling, Programme Leader for MA Design at the university, says: “Through the MA Design programme, Gary has really developed into a very confident and creative designer. He has really pushed himself technically and creatively and has produced some innovative illustrative work. I am so pleased he was recently accepted into the Enterprise Scheme to start his own Art Therapy company.”

Gary's Regeneration works include his illustration, glass and ceramics, all of which is coloured by his experience of disability, and how art helped to change him into someone new.

“I took the Japanese idea of Kitsuki art – accepting the beauty in your flaws, which I thought tied in perfectly with my experiences of spiral injury. So for one of the pieces I created a ceramic sculpture of a spine, broke it, then welded the pieces back together with gold thread. I think what happened to me made me change for the better. I’m more confident now. It’s always at the back of my mind that I’m the same bloke that I always was – but I’m clearly not."