The power of art has given Kahibah’s Dom Freestone a new lease on life.
Mr Freestone, 34, suffered a horrendous spinal cord injury 11 years ago that changed his life.
The accident left him in a wheelchair, but he is able to move his arms.
His pursuit of art led him to be selected as one of eight artists, from regional NSW, profiled for Createability 2017.
The project provides funding for filmmakers to profile artists with a disability.
Mr Freestone grew up at Woolgoolga, near Coffs Harbour.
“My family owned a few acres on the edge of Wedding Bells State Forest,” he told the Herald.
“I grew up playing a lot of football and surfing way too much. There wasn’t a day in either summer or winter that I wasn’t in the surf.”
After high school, he moved to Newcastle to be close to his older brother and start university.
At age 21, he decided to join the Royal Australian Air Force.
Two years later, while in Albury-Wodonga for technical training, he suffered the injury that changed his life – a broken neck.
“It was Saturday and it was hot, so my mates and I headed to the local dam to do some wakeboarding,” he said.
“We’d been at the dam all day and it was getting late. I decided to go for one last swim.”
He dived into the water, next to the boat, in the same spot he thought he’d been swimming all day.
“I don’t remember hitting my head, but I can remember floating to the surface face down in the water,” he said.
He said the first year after the accident was the hardest of his life.
“The friends, independence and future that I lost was so hard to bear.”
He slowly slipped into depression.
“It was around this time that a friend of mine came around and brought some of her paints and canvases,” he said.
“We spent the day painting and listening to music and, for the first time since the accident, I found something I could do independently and enjoy.”
Mr Freestone began to look forward to getting up and painting each day.
“I also started talking with a counsellor from Hunter Health and she was immense – she helped me so much,” he said.
“I don’t know why, but it’s so much easier to talk with a stranger about things than with people you know.”
At present, he is studying for a Bachelor of Visual Communication Design degree at University of Newcastle.
“Who would have thought – a quadriplegic graphic designer,” he said.
“So far I’ve managed an average mark of around 89, so HD [high distinction] average. Pretty happy with that.
“I’m in my final year. Hopefully I can get a job in some design agency when I finish.
“The ultimate goal would be to work with the Knights or NRL in some capacity. I’m a massive footy tragic.”
Mr Freestone has a specially-designed car that enables him to drive.
“I love exploring new places and looking for a good photo opportunity,” he said.
“Art, design and creating have done so much for me. Art helped me through the toughest periods of my life.”
It gave him a purpose, where he had none.
“It’s allowing me to express myself to people who otherwise wouldn’t have known me,” he said.
“It’s providing me with a career path and helping me to forge friendships – something I struggle with big time.”
Mr Freestone said he sometimes finds himself feeling blue.
“Doesn’t everyone?”, he said.
“My life is like anyone else’s. I have good days and bad.”
He finds that it helps to get out of the house, away from the distractions of modern life and be “among people and the world, often taking photos or drawing”.
“I try not to focus too much on the negative aspects of my disability. Instead I think of what’s possible for me and how lucky I am to have the life I have,” he said.
He said this quote, from actor James Spader in the TV series The Blacklist, sums up his outlook on his experience: “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it will be the second thing.”