We can all be guilty of giving up too easily at times, but a man from Portadown beat the odds and found a new path in life as an artist.
Following a life-threatening skiing accident in 2009, Keith Sheppard was told that the chance he would ever run again was less than 3%.
Little knew then, however, that the experience would send him on a journey that would lead him to create glass art that can now be found in the homes of some of the country’s most famous celebrities.
Originally from Devon, Keith can remember leaving home to see the world at the age of 16. According to his own statements, he “galloped” more than anything else.
That was until he landed on these shores about 45 years ago, where he found and stayed in public service, calling himself an “implant” for the nation.
Keith has loved the outdoors all his life, engaging in perhaps more adventurous sports activities, skydiving and rock climbing to name a few.
He said to Armagh I, “I ran marathons in three hours and 45 minutes, I rode my bike 20 miles to work in the morning and rode it back in the evening and I didn’t think about it.”
However, that part of Keith’s life was cut short on a fateful day in January 2009 while on a skiing holiday with friends in Austria.
He said, “I haven’t done anything stupid, I’ve spent so much time skiing that I would have classified myself in the aggressive advanced free skier category.
“I fell earlier in the day, hit my head and didn’t feel well. I pulled the stern up, we had some people saying they could ski so you know what that means and I checked them out. “
The next thing Keith could remember was everything going black and being hit in the head when he fell into a snow canyon.
He explained, “I am hung upside down in the ravine. I knew immediately that I had done something serious because I couldn’t feel my legs from the waist down.
“Luckily we were right at the highest peak, so there wasn’t a rescue team high up, then the helicopter arrived with a doctor, but the helicopter went back to bring two more crews because they had to cut four trees to get in to get to the gorge. ”
The whole ordeal lasted about an hour and a half, and from there Keith was taken to the intensive care unit of an Austrian hospital, where he fell into a coma for a week.
After the accident, Keith needed a titanium plate after breaking his fourth and fifth vertebrae and slipping his sixth and seventh vertebrae.
After another week and a half in intensive care, Keith was flown to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for another week before being transferred to a spinal unit in Musgrave Park, where he stayed for six months.
During his first meeting with a counselor, Keith was informed that the chance he would ever leave the hospital was less than 3%.
Looking back, he remembered: “I can remember the first physiotherapist, I had an electric wheelchair and the room was at the other end of a hall.
“They laid me down, buckled me into this machine, and tilted it up to place the weight legs. I did it for about 20 minutes before I almost passed out.”
Keith can remember hours that night in the hospital in bed trying to think about moving parts of the body.
He said, “I would get through any of my hardships. I think I used up my nine lives, nine years ago, with all my antics as a young guy, diving off stones into waist-high water, as you do with young bravado. “
After a week, Keith had his first movement which was half a millimeter of his big toe on his left foot and that was the start.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I suppose there was a determination how to get to the marathon barrier and then do that three times.”
Keith can still remember the day he left the spine unit in Musgrave Park.
He recalled: “From day one, I told the advisor that I would go out here and drive the car home.
“I did that, but I only walked 15 meters on two crutches and got into my modified car. I remember that day well, it was very emotional. “
Keith commented, “It is very difficult to judge why I have made progress and others have not. If I had gone to a French hospital, I probably would not have survived. I had first class health insurance for skiing because of our activities.
“I was fit from the start, but there is definitely a mental application. I was in a medical coma for a week, it was Touch and Go because of a swelling around my neck that I couldn’t do anything about. “
At the hospital in Austria, Keith’s wife Denise was flown to him, where a doctor called him a fighter and said he would make it.
He said, “They say we use less than 10% of our brain power. I firmly believe that there is one aspect to this. I would describe it as happy but unhappy.
“It’s hard to accept who I am now. I’m emotional now because I don’t have my physical abilities. It’s still difficult to find my way around, I still walk short distances with two crutches and I still have a wheelchair that I don’t like to put myself in. “
When Keith got home he thought, “What do I do next?”
After he left the hospital on July 24th, he returned to work in a wheelchair a week later as he had six months to get his full pension.
Keith said, “Everyone was brilliant, I graduated and worked a few hours a day as that was all I could do. I was looked after and owed some time, so I retired in April 2010 but was more or less finished by February.
“But it was difficult to see everyone in wheelchairs again.”
Keith was determined to visit his sister in Cornwall, which opened his eyes to a new career.
He said: “Cornwall is a great Mecca for art. I’ve been thinking about what to do for a long time, I can sit around and think about it, but I had to keep my mind active and keep my thoughts away from my injuries.
“While we were visiting galleries, we saw wood and metalwork, but then I saw this glass art and thought, yes, I’ll try.”
After doing some research, Keith discovered that the internationally known Karl Harron had a studio on the Ards Peninsula.
From there he began training with one-to-one lessons in 2011 under the guidance of Karl for a period of around six months.
Keith then tried to find his “unique artistic signature” and he found it in the combination of copper and glass.
In November 2011, Keith received news that a Council-led business engagement project was taking a stand at Showcase Dublin.
“We only had mid-November through January, I didn’t have any substance to put on a display and I was wondering what to do.”
It seems fate happened. While he was finishing a commissioned bowl, Keith accidentally damaged the glass, but after consulting with the customer, it was agreed that he would try to save the piece.
He said: “I made this effect on the glass, which turned out very well. I brought it around and she loved it, but when I suggested bending it into a bowl shape, she said, “No, no, can’t you put it in something?”
Keith reached for a bog oak, put the piece in and found the combination just right.
He then made two similar pieces for the shop window. As a result, his work was taken up by the Guinness Gallery in Dublin.
“Two years later, Elizabeth Guinness admitted she took a risk with me, but 10 years later I am still working with them.”
From there, Keith’s work has been exhibited in galleries across Northern Ireland, London, Dublin and beyond.
Looking to the future, he said, “I’m now moving more towards larger art installations and sculptural works, like an old windmill with a water pump that I picked at the Walled Garden Sculpture exhibition at Bangor Castle.”
Keith is also proud to have hosted the Ulster Tatler Awards for two years, which means that some of his pieces can be found in the homes of Northern Ireland’s top celebrities.
If you want to learn more about Keith’s work, you can visit his website and Instagram page.