Joy of life is at heart of artist's new works

Exhibit: Surviving her heart transplant has changed a Columbia painter's focus - in both life and art - to reverence.

July 11, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Mary Eckert had a change of heart in February - literally and figuratively.

Nearly two years after a massive heart attack and bypass surgery that took half of her major muscle, the acrylic artist received a transplant that she says not only gave her a new chance at life, but a new outlook on it - and her art.

"I savor every day now as if it were a Snickers bar," said Eckert, who lives in Columbia. "Moments are too precious to waste, especially when you realize there are a finite number of them."

She has given up worrying and lollygagging in front of the television. She hikes every day. She meditates.

As a former advertising graphics artist, whose clients included Merriweather Post Pavilion, Eckert was used to deadlines and pressure, and never ever having enough time.

Now making time for the things she says really matter - giving back to people, enjoying nature - is her focus in life. And veneration is the focus of her artwork.

Next month, Eckert, 54, will put on her first show since her heart attack. Called Reverence: Inspirational Paintings from the Heart of Mary Eckert, the exhibit will feature about 15 works in the Artists' Gallery in the American City Building in Columbia.

"Before, my main focus [in my artwork] was freedom; I was trying to get more freedom in my work," Eckert said. "It's not that so much anymore. Now the idea is the same as the show's title: reverence. It's about inspiration."

Eckert's earlier paintings, which cover the walls of her split-level home, were more abstract, with scenes from nature interwoven. Now, she is including more figures because she says they can better convey the emotions she is trying to depict and better show her newfound reverence for life.

"It happens to almost anybody who goes through any major serious illness," said Dr. Michael Fisher, one of Eckert's cardiologists at University of Maryland Hospital. "Suddenly, you're facing the reality of potential end of life, and it changes your perspective almost without question."

Eckert had thought everything was just fine in 2000.

Granted, she could stand to lose a little weight, maybe exercise some more and kick the smoking habit, but she generally felt good. Then the attack happened, and it changed everything.

She was treated first at Howard County General Hospital. By November, she was on the transplant list, and a string of hospital stays had begun.

She spent time in Sinai Hospital of Baltimore and lived at University of Maryland Hospital for 10 months off and on because her heart kept failing.

She moved her books and some furniture in, decorated her IV pole with wood and fabric hearts, and had friends care for her three pet birds at home.

"Talk about a loss of freedom," Eckert said. "It was horrible."

She says learned a lot during that time, though, and was constantly awed by the dedication of the transplant team and Dr. Fisher.

To thank him, she gave him a painting at Christmastime while she was still waiting to see if she would receive a new heart. Called Meditation, it features a Japanese woman kneeling in front of a beam of light. Fisher hung it in the hospital's third-floor waiting room, where families of cardiac patients stay.

"I thought the families going through all the stress would be inspired to see work by a patient who survived a heart transplant," Fisher said. "It's got a spirituality that's warm and positive and outgoing, which very much fits Mary's personality."

In February, Eckert found out she would receive a donor heart. It came from a 29-year-old father of one who was hit by a car. She met his family six weeks ago.

"It was definitely a life-transforming experience for her," said Eckert's longtime friend Joyce Klein of Reisterstown. "She's become more extroverted, more active and more interested in pursuing things that are positive influences in her life."

One of those pursuits has led to a new career, aside from the painting that has been a passion since high school.

Eckert gave up her hectic and restrictive graphics art career and has turned to officiating at weddings as an ordained minister in Klein's nonprofit organization, the Sanctuary Spiritual Science Congregation and School. She performed her first ceremony last weekend.

"From now on, I only want to do joyous things," Eckert said.

She counts her coming exhibit among them.

"It represents the start of a new life, the start of a new career, a new attitude, new ideas," Eckert said. "It's a breakaway from the past. It's a celebration of new."

Mary Eckert's exhibit will be at the Artists Gallery in the American City Building, 10227 Wincopin Circle, Columbia, from Aug. 5-30. Information: 410-740-8249.

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