MARY Rudkin has lived her life open to challenges but with one constant element throughout – her art.

“I have to draw or paint something every day,” she said. “It’s just something I need to do and I can’t imagine not doing it.”

As a professional artist, 68-year-old Mary’s work is readily identifiable and today she paints pictures, runs workshops, designs and sews, using the range of skills which have been steadily acquired during her lifetime so far.

Their roots, though, lie in her Horwich childhood as the middle child of a family of two creative parents. Her father, a refrigeration engineer, drew artistic plans freehand and her mother was a talented seamstress, teaching young Mary to sew and knit from an early age.

“One of my first memories is of making doll’s clothes,” she said.

She went to local primary schools but, as she was not a natural academic, her parents sent her to the pioneering Isis School in Astley Bridge which helped hone her creative talents.

She left with five O levels and a vague plan of becoming an artist, setting her sights on Bolton Art College and a three-year foundation course.

There, she took her City and Guilds’ qualification in pattern cutting and dressmaking and it was this that gave Mary her first job – cutting patterns at dressmaker Edna Glynn’s King Street, Manchester, premises for £7 a week.

Keen to work nearer home, she left after a year to become a dress designer at Holt’s Hosiery in Bolton where she stayed for two years. “We started working with crimplene, which was a wonderful material because it didn’t fray!” recalled Mary.

Looking for a fresh challenge, however, Mary did a career about-turn and joined an au pair agency. Her first job involved working in Geneva for “quite a posh family”. For £4 a week and her “keep”, Mary was expected to “look after three children, do the cleaning and be a bridge partner. I was run ragged!”

She got fed up of this after a year but then, through the same Manchester au pair agency, began working for another family, this time in Italy. Mary’s artistic skills came in very handy with all her young charges and Mary herself learned much about childcare and organisation. She also learned that she didn’t want to be a nanny so, after six months, she returned to the UK.

A friend suggested she would be ideal to teach creative classes to adults with learning disabilities at Bolton’s Cotton Street training centre. And I found that I loved teaching,” she said.

Mary spent seven very happy years there and was also sent on several training courses to improve her teaching education.

However, always with an eye to the next challenge, she then went out to New Zealand after a friend suggested working with adults with learning disabilities there. This led to an enjoyable six-months culminating in touring Australia before returning once more to Horwich.

Mary then started teaching evening classes in Chorley, which also led to work at Runshaw College, before working again with adults in Bolton as a result of Care in the Community. This policy brought hundreds of people with learning disabilities out of institutionalised care and back into local communities.

Mary was based at the old Clarence Street College and also worked with a range of other adults in art and sewing classes. After this, she became a freelance, working partly for Artists in Schools running projects in a variety of local schools, before lecturing in education for the University of Bolton.

From the start of her working career, Mary helped create costumes at the Octagon theatre. She also painted, often using for inspiration the wonderful scenery around her 18th century cottage on the West Pennine Moors above Horwich.

She has become involved with town centre charity CreateBolton, which has been an outlet and support for the development of her successful art exhibitions.

Probably the biggest challenge of Mary’s life, though, came just over a year ago when, after feeling poorly for some time, she was diagnosed with aggressive ovarian cancer.

“At first, I wanted to keep it private and only told family and friends,” she explained. “I wanted to continue as near normal as possible and not be defined by my condition.”

She has had lengthy chemotherapy treatment, lost her hair (which has now grown back) and is currently on maintenance treatment. This has resulted in muscle wastage in her arms and tiredness. But being Mary, whose indomitable spirit and open, warm-heartedness mean she has always embraced life, she has taken it in her stride.

“Yes, I’ve got cancer but life goes on,” she smiled. “And there are still lots of new things to do.”

Caption: CREATIVE LIFE – Artist Mary Rudkin at her 18th century cottage home