In the last decade, Henry Fraser was a promising rugby player working his way towards the English national team. In 2016, Fraser mounted an exhibition of his paintings at his old school that once discovered his sporting talent. Between being a sportsman and an artist lies a transformational story that defies all odds. As a 17-year-old, Fraser was on his first adult-free holiday abroad in Portugal in 2009 when the world came down on him. Swimming in the sea with his friends, the boy crashed his head on the seabed. Airlifted to hospital, he was soon found to have severely crushed his spinal cord. Paralysed from the shoulder down, Fraser was told he would never walk again. Lying in a hospital bed and gazing at an unknown future, Fraser decided to change his life. What he did could motivate even the most brave. Prescribed at least one-and-a-half years in hospital with breathing support, Fraser was out in six months on a wheelchair. Five years later, he was painting with the brush fixed to his mouth. How did he do it? One of the first things Fraser decided lying in the hospital was that “defeat is optional”. Once that was decided, the next step was to work towards small progresses. “However small progress is, it can have a huge impact,” he recollects. Initially, when he was not able to speak, Fraser communicated by making a noise at the right alphabet shown to him to form a word. Once it took him 45 minutes to spell out ‘James Martin’, as his family played a quiz on British chefs to humour him. When the next name was ‘Antony Worrall Thompson’, Fraser kept quiet.
His journey to recovery is filled with pain and pessimism. There are several times when Fraser thinks he is not going to make it, but fights infections and self-doubts like a champion, with the help and support of his family and friends. His mother and father are always by his side and his grandmother, who is of Greek origin, helps him the only way she can: by cooking for all the visitors “as if my family’s life depended on it”.
Fraser had to learn many things again, like breathing and coughing. Eight weeks after the accident, when Fraser began to breathe on his own, he says it “felt like victory”. Once he is out of hospital, his school helps him graduate by making many adjustments for him.
But it’s only when he draws his idol and Formula One champion, Lewis Hamilton, on an iPad by using an app that Fraser is drawn to the world of art. More painting work follows and soon Fraser’s school becomes the venue for his first art exhibition, Hand to Mouth, six years after his accident. A motivational speaker and artist, Fraser has since painted a lot of things, from a suspension bridge and sailboat to legendary paralympians. There is also a 2017 calendar made of his works. “More than anything I do, I feel most defined by my art,” he says.
Fraser’s life has attracted the attention of many, including Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who says the young man is “one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met”. The foreword to Fraser’s memoir is written by Rowling, who was present at Fraser’s first art exhibition. “I follow Henry on Twitter and regularly chat with him by Director Message,” writes Rowling. “Fate forced Henry Fraser down a terrifying path for which no preparation was possible,” she says. “He had to find his own way back to a life worth living and in doing so he revealed himself to be a person of extraordinary perseverance, strength and wisdom.”
Fraser’s paintings are finding fans everywhere. During the 2015 Rugby World Cup, his works were used by The Times, London. Besides being a friend of Rowling, he has fans in the English rugby and cricket teams as well. Last year, Fraser was included in the ‘Power 100’ list as the seventh most influential person living with a disability in Britain.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer