Eric Cook was just 21-months-old when he contracted meningoencephalitis, a dangerous brain infection that put him in a coma for 16 days and left him with severe epilepsy that would plague him for the rest of his life. Yet despite the challenges he’s faced, Eric’s determination has seen him not only pursue his passion, but complete a tertiary education — introducing his mother to a whole new world in the process.
In June this year, 24-year-old Eric accomplished what many thought his epilepsy had made impossible, graduating with a Diploma of Visual Arts from TAFE Queensland Nambour campus in a moment of immense pride that was made all the more special by the fact he was sharing the moment with his mum and fellow graduate, Julie Cook.
From an early age, art was Eric’s way of conquering the challenges life presented him. Having emerged from the infection with no hand-eye coordination, Eric had to spend years working hard in occupational therapy to learn movements that many people take for granted. It was a long and difficult process, but he discovered that expressing himself through creativity helped him along the way.
“If I wanted my hand to go one way, it would go the other way, so I had to think opposite to get my hand to do what I wanted,” Eric said.
“It was frustrating, so I just thought, you know what? Let me try art and see how I go with that. That was when I was about four or five, and since then I’ve been making art pieces,” he said.
“I find that by using art, especially when I’ve had a seizure or feel like I’m going to have one, it takes my mind off it. It’s been therapy for me.”
With his seizures beginning to worsen and increase in frequency, Eric underwent surgery at just six years of age, with doctors separating the two hemispheres of his brain in order to limit the seizures from spreading. But while the surgery was mostly successful in boosting Eric’s quality of life, he struggled in school, and when his family migrated from South Africa to the Spanish island of Mallorca when he was 16, the lack of English-speaking schools saw Eric call time on his studies.
In the five years he lived in Spain Eric’s passion for art had grown stronger and was becoming more than just a hobby. He began doing YouTube tutorials and refining his skills, discovering a fondness for drawing others.
“What I really find interesting about drawing or painting is portraiture. I like portraying people’s emotions — taking what they feel and capturing it in my art,” Eric said.
After moving to Australia with his family when he was 21, Eric, with the help of his mum Julie, investigated his options and following a conversation with TAFE Queensland, the pair decided to enrol in a Certificate III in Visual Arts.
“Eric’s epilepsy has taken me on some interesting little detours in my life, and that’s how I found myself enrolled in the course with him; Eric has to be with someone who can manage his seizures at all times,” Julie said.
“I was there more as support for Eric, but this has been a real journey and it has opened up a whole new exciting world for me.”
A classically trained pianist who had never picked up a paint brush or held an interest for visual art herself, Julie was sceptical as to whether she would make it through the course. But she was pleasantly surprised when she discovered that not only did she love it, but she was good at it.
“When I first started, I looked at some of the work the other artists in our class were producing and I felt like a fish out of water,” she said.
“But doing the Certificate III was brilliant because it gave us that tool box of resources, and we learnt so much in terms of the basic skills which we could then take and develop further.”
“Now it’s soul food for me; there’s something incredibly rewarding about the creative process and watching your work evolve. But for me it’s a hobby — for Eric, it’s a career.”
Now just 18 months later the pair have officially graduated with a Diploma of Visual Arts, and Eric has been approached to hold his first solo exhibition.
“It’s a complicated situation because a lot of people are afraid to get involved because of the seizures, but the support we’ve received from the staff at TAFE Queensland has been fantastic,” Julie said.
“I never thought it would be possible for Eric to have a tertiary education because he hadn’t come anywhere close to finishing school. I never expected to go down this path, but I’m so glad I did. To witness Eric’s personal growth and see him succeed like this has been amazing.”