Henderson, Cathy (1963–2014), artist, was born in London on 4 February 1963, one of four children (three boys and one girl) of English parents Peter Henderson, a lecturer in occupational psychology and his wife Mary (née Topham), an artist. She spent her early childhood living in Barton-Under-Needwood, Staffordshire, where she attended the Thomas Russell Junior School. The family then moved to Belfast in 1971, living first on the Malone Road before moving to the village of Drumbeg on the south bank of the Lagan in Co. Down. Henderson attended primary school at Charley Memorial in Drumbeg and the Methodist College Belfast (‘Methody’) for secondary education. The family moved to Bangor in north Co. Down in the late 1970s.
Showing significant artistic talent from a young age, Henderson had already developed a strong personal style by her teenage years, with drawing, painting and printing emerging as her preferred media. She had very broad tastes and among her earliest and most enduring influences were American painter Andrew Wyeth and British artists Lucien Freud and David Hockney. Despite a strong academic performance she did not enjoy her time at Methody, finding that it did not cater well for artistic students. She spent a year living in Paris in the early 1980s working as an au pair, and while there was offered a place at École des Beaux-Arts. She chose instead to return to Ireland to study at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), Dublin, in 1983, where she did a year’s portfolio course and then studied for a degree in graphic design for three years. During her studies she spent a summer working in New York at the Manhattan studio of graphic designer Milton Glaser.
She had met her future husband David Gregg, a sound recordist and video editor, as a teenager in Bangor, and the couple married in the Methody chapel on 8 September 1984, while Henderson was studying for her undergraduate degree. After a break of a few years in the late 1980s, Henderson returned to NCAD as a postgraduate student and was awarded an MA in fine art in 1993 for her study of Dublin market workers and thesis on political cartoons.
Her first significant exhibition was at Dublin’s City Arts Centre in summer 1992 in collaboration with South African poet Caesarina Makhoere. The show, titled Manphwe (Voices), presented Makhoere’s poetry on the experiences of black women in South Africa alongside Henderson’s illustrative drawings and prints. In 1994 she undertook her first major solo project at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. To capture moments in time of the life of the theatre, Henderson took up residence backstage at the Lyric and during the course of two productions produced rapid sketches of performers and crew members. The resulting exhibition of sketches and paintings opened at the theatre in June 1994. She would follow this in 1997 with an exhibition titled Parade, derived similarly from action sketches, this time of Orange Order marches in Belfast.
Extremely hardworking, Henderson took on many commercial projects alongside her work as an artist, including illustrating several children’s, cookery and popular reference books for publishers including O’Brien Press, Dublin, and Appletree Press, Belfast. She also provided illustrations for feature articles for the Irish Times and Sunday Business Post from the mid-1990s. In 1998, she and her husband David Gregg produced an audio documentary for BBC Radio 4 on the Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival, held annually in the Co. Clare town. The piece was nominated for a prestigious Sony award.
In 2001, she co-founded a small print-making studio, the Workroom, with a group of fellow artists in the Hendron’s building, a former inner-city tool factory on Dominick Street, Dublin, where the group also exhibited work and Henderson gave life drawing classes. Later that year, in October, Henderson was in a serious road accident which shattered one of her legs. She was hospitalised for several months and underwent a series of reconstructive operations, but ultimately had her leg amputated above the knee in 2008 and had to learn to walk, and cycle, with a prosthesis. She continued to develop her artistic practice throughout those years though she did not exhibit much. While recovering from one of her many operations at St Vincent’s hospital she was struck by the portraits of the institution’s primarily male benefactors – board members, senior administrators and consultants – lining the walls, and had the idea to create a series of candid oil and acrylic paintings of ordinary hospital workers – cleaners, porters, caterers – resulting in the ground-breaking exhibition Life blood, held at St James’s Hospital, where she was artist-in-residence, in 2009. While artist-in-residence at Dublin City Council, she similarly celebrated workers from its cleansing department in a 2007 exhibition of twenty-four portraits, titled Below the surface. It was shown first at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, then the LAB exhibition space at the Dublin City Arts Office, before transferring to the Dublin City Council Building at Wood Quay in February 2008. Her portraits were accompanied by recorded interviews with the subjects, edited by her husband.
Henderson travelled several times to the Canadian Arctic during 1998 and again in 2013 to take part in the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik, a remote town in the Northwest Territories of Canada, and in 2011 she held a solo exhibition of relief prints titled Migration, funded by Culture Ireland, in Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory. In 2010, she joined the Black Church Print Studio, an artist collective with studios in Temple Bar, Dublin, where she pursued her interest in printing. Influenced by Wang Chao, a Chinese print master who she met at a workshop in Belfast, Henderson was unique in Ireland in practising relief woodblock printing using a traditional technique to carve fruit woods, mainly cherry. She exhibited some of this work in group shows with fellow Black Church artists. Printing became an increasingly important practice, and she experimented with different print methods, including etched copper printing.
She received project grants from the Arts and Disability Forum in 2004, 2008 and 2012, and Arts Council ‘artist in the community’ awards in 2009 and 2010 to fund a large-scale project with a group of long-term prisoners, conducting workshops and giving instruction. That year three portraits by Henderson of prominent Freemasons were unveiled at the Grand Lodge on Molesworth Street. Around that time she also began a series of studies of the Irish coastline, that would result in a 2012 exhibition of paintings titled Shore, in which Henderson wanted ‘to capture the transience of the coastal view, the sense of shifting skies and the constantly fluctuating mood of weather’ (Draíocht website, 2012). Adopting a looser style than her earlier work, Henderson’s impressionistic renderings of sky and seascapes were well received in Dublin and more paintings on this theme were shown at the ADF Gallery in Belfast in an exhibition titled Ebb and flow from January to March 2014. In 2018 three of her seascapes were gifted to President Michael D. Higgins.
In early 2012 she was selected, along with artist Robert Ballagh (b. 1943), to develop and design an artwork to tell the story of the 1913 lockout as part of a collaborative project co-sponsored by NCAD and the Services Industrial Professional Technical Union (SIPTU). Henderson was diagnosed with stage four cancer later that year, and given a terminal prognosis. She continued to work on the project, however, which brought together thirty-two separate tapestry panels in an eye-catching, comic-book narrative style created to Henderson and Ballagh’s designs by some 260 volunteers, both adults and school children, from various schools, community organisations and groups. The project was completed in October 2013 and launched by President Michael D. Higgins at the sixteen-storey Liberty Hall, Dublin, in November 2013, which was wrapped from top to bottom in a giant reproduction of the tapestries. The tapestry series was exhibited at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, then at NCAD in February 2014, and thereafter at other locations including the Glasnevin Cemetery Museum and Ballyfermot Library.
Cathy Henderson died from cancer on 27 September 2014 at Blackrock Hospice, Dublin. A farewell ceremony was held for her on 3 October at the Victorian Chapel at Mount Jerome cemetery, Harold’s Cross, Dublin, followed by cremation. A representative for President Higgins attended. She had lived primarily in Kilmacanogue, Co. Wicklow, from the 1990s until her final illness. Described by her husband as hilariously funny, bright, personable and social, her last piece was a commissioned portrait of oncologist Donal Hollywood (qv) for St James’s Hospital, which hangs at the entrance of the ward named for him and was unveiled shortly before Henderson’s death, though she was by that time too weak to attend.
Her work is in a number of private and public collections, including those of the Electricity Supply Board, Guinness, Bank of Ireland, BBC, National Bank of Canada and Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB). In October 2018, a striking portrait of Henderson by Paul Mac Cormaic was included at the annual exhibition of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts, Belfast. In 2010 she had begun to collaborate with poet Nell Regan on a project titled Thirty-six views of the Sugarloaf, a series of responses to the Wicklow mountain based on the eighteenth/nineteenth-century Japanese artist Hokusai’s woodblock print series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji. Comprised of letterpress poems, woodblock prints, large-scale paintings and photographs, the project remained unfinished at the time of Henderson’s death, however it is hoped that the material will be exhibited in a future commemorative exhibition organised by Regan and Henderson’s husband, David Gregg.