From the eye of the mind

Artist: Despite loss of eyesight from two strokes, Christine Conko has found a way to create hundreds of abstract drawings and paintings.

March 05, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

MONROVIA - Christine Conko turns toward fellow artist Ed Ramsburg and hums a note. By the pitch, he knows where to dip the brush.

"This is a light gray, almost white," he tells her. He then guides her left hand to a corner of the canvas, where she applies precise vertical strokes, working from left to right until she reaches the edge of the canvas.

At this point, other artists might inspect their work and evaluate its progress. Conko looks, but she can't really see.

She was 22 when a stroke stole her eyesight and the use of her right arm - and, one would think, her future as an artist. But the Frederick County woman has created hundreds of abstract drawings and paintings during the past decade. She sells and shows her art - now on display at an exhibit at McDaniel College in Westminster.

Limited to seeing little more than shadows or bursts of random color that resemble fireworks, she works with Ramsburg's help. He knows that when she sings a higher tone, he should supply her with a lighter shade of color, while a low tone means darker.

Working together in Conko's home studio in Monrovia, he advises her and directs her hand to the canvas. But the images that she paints come from inside her mind.

"She paints not from what she sees outside, but from what she sees within," says Margaret Dowell, who taught Conko in high school and shared billing with her in a 1996 art show in Frederick.

Dowell says that Conko, like other artists, is virtually unable to resist the need to create.

"For a lot of people, it's not a choice," she says. "When it's not a choice, you figure out how to do it."

Initially, the stroke left Conko unable to speak. She has relearned language, but speech does not come easily to her. She's more apt to communicate with short phrases and through gestures. When she describes her latest in a series of evolving artistic styles, she holds her hand over her heart with a flourish, smiles broadly and says, "Now this is aah-woo. This is cool."

Conko, 36, grew up wanting to be an art teacher, and earned a degree in art education at Frederick Community College. She was a senior at Towson University, studying art education, when she suffered a severe cerebral hemorrhage in 1989. It was her second stroke - she suffered one while in high school - and she remained in a coma for eight months.

The stroke damaged her optical nerves, limiting her ability to do little more than distinguish light from dark.

The stroke also left her right leg partially paralyzed. She is unable to walk without the aid of a brace.

She had to learn to be left-handed.

Conko went through two years of physical therapy, including speech, sign language and Braille lessons at Frederick Memorial Hospital. There, she started becoming an artist again.

Janet Copeland, a speech language pathologist, taught Conko how to sign colors and words that would be useful for an artist: big, little, bright and dull.

"Even though she couldn't communicate with words or see, she was able to unitize other people around her through non-verbal gestures," Copeland says.

She says Conko's passion for art helped her through the roughest times.

"I don't think many people in her position have this kind of outlet," Copeland says. "It gives her a way to participate in life and with people doing something she loves."

Conko's mother, Theresa Conko, remembers that her daughter managed to keep her spirits up. She recalls a sermon about being blind and the sadness of never seeing the seasons again. It made her cry, but her daughter said her memories help her get by.

"She said, `But Mom, I've seen April. I still remember what it looks like,'" Theresa Conko says. "Her salvation is her art. It's her life."

Christine Conko summoned her memories of spring for a painting titled I've Seen April.

After her therapy, Conko teamed with Mary Ellen Randolph, a retired Hood College art teacher. Randolph met Conko at an adult day care facility in Frederick where she was a volunteer.

"She had a great deal of talent before this happened to her," says Randolph, 84. "I can't take any credit, but I'm glad I had a part in bringing her back toward what she was."

One technique that Conko learned with Randolph is putting black posterboard or cardboard beneath her drawing paper or canvas. It helps her establish boundaries for her work. Randolph also encouraged her to make simple bead jewelry.

Since her stroke, Conko's art has progressed from simple chalk drawings to more complex work. The paintings on display at McDaniel College are made up of flowing and thick squiggly lines in the style of cursive Asian calligraphy.

Dowell, Conko's high school art teacher, persuaded friend and artist Ramsburg to meet the woman. Dowell thought Conko needed another artist to help and mentor her.

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