Painter masters the art of victory over illnesses

April 05, 1994|By Elise T. Chisolm

Beams of sunlight sift through the wide windows and illuminate the bright red hair that defines her persona. Except for the movement caused by her brush strokes, she is engulfed in a trancelike quietness.

Elizabeth Bowersox, artist, is at work. Do not disturb.

She is painting this day at the Rockland Art Center in Howard County. Others in the class are talking, she is not. She is painting flowers, her favorites. She says she needs all her facilities to attend to her work in progress -- a fresh bouquet of spring flowers awash with bright colors. She's adding some hues that are as vibrant as her celebration of life this spring.

She paints at a Baltimore County Senior Center and other studios, too. Her watercolors consume her days.

Elizabeth is 68. When she was 52, married and raising three children, she had a devastating stroke. After the stroke, she had a heart attack, and then open-heart surgery.

She was weeks in the hospital and in physical therapy. Her husband and her children supported her rehabilitation, and her valiant struggle, but it was slow.

Before her stroke and since her early 20s she had been a successful Baltimore artist.

Shows, contests and sales were part of her life.

The stroke damaged her right side. She would never walk or talk again, according to the first diagnosis. But she surprised everyone with a mix of courage and faith while plunging down TC new road.

The artist was determined that she would paint again.

"A few months after the stroke, I tried with pencils to sketch with my left hand -- it worked. It was then I knew I'd get back to my brushes," she tells me.

Her story is a profile in courage, but perhaps it is more. It is a lesson to be learned -- that serious illness is surmountable. And that there is life after stroke. Almost every pitfall that would deter an ordinary person has befallen the artist. Her husband left her in 1983, and two years ago, her daughter Angelique, 41, died of cancer.

Elizabeth herself has cancer. But it almost seems as if her heartbreaks gave her the incentive to try harder. Now, her paintings, like her grandchildren, are a Linus-like blanket of comfort and achievement.

She still has a hesitancy in her speech, trouble putting words together and connecting phrases. There is some memory loss. Her right side is still weak, but she can walk. She drives a car and takes care of her house all by herself.

I first met the artist in November 1993 during her exhibit at the Ward Center for the Arts at St. Paul's Schools, where her floral watercolors danced with liquidity across the walls of the gallery.

She has exhibited and has received awards at Baltimore's Watermark Gallery, the Art Gallery of Fells Point and others. She has gone to France with a group of artists to paint and study. She has attended classes at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Her sister says that nothing daunts Elizabeth. She thinks that the artist's sense of humor and red-headed temper fuel her enthusiasm for her life's work.

I ask Elizabeth what has made her so resolute.

"I just wanted to paint again. It is that simple. I come from a family that never gives up, but I still have not painted the ultimate landscape or flower. I have more to go."

She adds that she thinks she is a better painter now, working from her left side.

Or, is it her skill in focusing? Indeed Baltimore is lucky to have a painter of this caliber, and a person who radiates hope for those with disabilities.

As for that red, red hair. She admits it comes from a bottle. But there's nothing artificial about her tenacity.

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