Today, on the first day of my new job, I interviewed a living testament to the resiliancy of women. Sorry men, I haven't seen a one of you that's recovered from adversity with the grace and sheer joy I saw in this fine woman.
Her story begins like many, one of eleven children in a tar paper shack, deep in the mountains of West Virginia. Abandoned by her mother, victimized by her father from age 9 to 13, friendless, and lonely, she created an imaginary friend. What happened next is what sets this artist apart from others who've experienced similar difficulties.
As I panted after her up the three flights of stairs to her top floor studio, it was easy to see the girl she once was roaming her native hills. The halls are lined with her paintings, brilliant fanciful works in every shade of blue and her favorite purple. I was moved by her ability to capture not just the look of what she was painting, but the mood of a moment in time. She paints her memories of a lonely girl dependent on the kindness of one neighbor and the protection of an imaginary friend. She paints the plight of women everywhere. A mother, her baby clutched to her chest, racing through woods, the fear and sadness in her eyes burning from the canvas. A woman bowed under the weight of the world's standard of beauty. Her studio is stacked with paintings. More canvases of the imaginary stories she entertained herself with as a child, some florals, and prominently placed next to the door, a three dimensional rendering of the tiny shack set amongst the mountains. Beautiful in it's simplistic style.
"That's what people see from the outside..." she says when she catches me studying it. "no one ever knows what's really happening inside." She tells me she was the first of her family to graduate from High School, the only one to go on to College. She talks about how her older sister escaped their hideous family life and despite never learning to read, managed to land a job and come back for her. Our artist payed it forward and went back and rescued the sister beneath her. I ask her, when? When did you start painting? That too is an amazing story.
She tried to draw just once as a child in school. Her class listened to a radio show after which they were told to draw a picture of the story they'd just heard. She drew a phoenix, rising from the ashes. Her picture was selected to hang in the place of honor over the radio. She tells me then, this is the only time she can remember being deliberately mean to anyone. The class bully pulled it down when the class was away at lunch, tore it up and stepped on it. When she saw what he'd done she got mad. "He knew I was poor and he knew I was ugly, but he didn't know that I was also fast." She chased him out of the classroom and pushed him down the stairs. And that was the last time she tried to draw anything until her mid thirties.
A farming accident left her broken and bedridden in the living room of her home. Helpless with two small children, she was rapidly descending into depression when a friend intervened and forced her to try painting. They hung the blank canvas over the top of the bed and she tried, soon spending every day painting, and every evening getting the paint and turpentine washed off her body. By the time she'd recovered enough to move to a wheelchair, she was frustrated with her self taught efforts. "It's like a musician who can play by ear but doesn't know the notes to write on the paper" she said. She enrolled in art classes at Kent State.
She's had her own gallery, served as a curator for a museum, raised two children and leads the art community in her town. She is as bright eyed as a pixie and continues to turn the nightmare that was her beginning into the light that is her present by sharing the stories she created as a child through a series of three fantasy books.