Hues of life stir after 1 dark day

Paintbrush, canvas restore vitality for a man immobilized by tragedy

December 04, 2007|By JONATHAN PITTS | JONATHAN PITTS,SUN REPORTER

He has stared at the black-and-white photo for hours - the folds in the flannel jersey, the play of shadow and light - and finally, the artist acts.

He dips brush to palette, swabbing up colors. He swivels his head toward a canvas and pads, blocks and swirls. A sleeve comes to life, a big cheek, a navy-and-white cap, and finally it's Babe Ruth himself, gazing out in melancholy color, mighty arms finishing a home-run swing.

Behold the work of Robert Florio, a 25-year-old man who lost use of his limbs 11 years ago and now spends much of his time with a paintbrush in his mouth, rendering images of motion and grace. "What God took away," he says, "I've found other ways to give back."

Today's piece is just practice. He created a bigger Ruth, an oil painting called The Golden Babe, months ago. When it is sold, half the proceeds will go to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore. The other half will go to a fund that helps defray Florio's roughly $300,000 in annual medical costs (Medicaid pays 95 percent and more).

The Golden Babe would've been a milestone for any painter, says Shawn Herne, curator of the museum at the birthplace of the famed baseball slugger. "Few artists have captured the Babe's motion - or emotion - as Robert has. This piece is the most realistic Ruth I've seen."

It's also an imprint of Florio's journey.

Motion once defined Robert Florio, the youngest boy of Glen Burnie immigrants from Italy. In fact, he could barely sit still. At his Christian school, as his parents recall, he was scary smart, though teachers pulled their hair out at his class-clowning. Girls dug the scar on his cheek - he'd had an untimely accident with a plate of pasta - and he worked it like a leprechaun's charm. "It was all about being cool," he says.

He loved soccer, skateboarding and baseball. As a pitcher, he had heat for a little guy, and he ate up grounders at short. Cal Ripken was his hero.

He was on the move that sunny day in June 1996. He'd just flunked eighth grade, but Robert never thought of canceling his date at a friend's house, where they'd go for a backyard swim.

Diving into the four-foot-deep pool was usually a snap. He'd launch across the water, gliding in parallel to the bottom, and swim away. Today was different.

The moment is frozen in his mind, a fly ensnared in amber. His body, above the surface. A sense of imbalance, his inner gyroscope tilted. The water, spiking him down like a football.

Even now, it stuns him, what he recalls. Not knowing where his limbs were. Lungs taking on water. Surfacing for a second, begging for help, the laughter of uncomprehending friends. Sinking again.

And the thoughts he had as he went down, this brimming Bart Simpson, stripped to his soul in a moment. For years, he'd scoffed at teachers; now, their lessons were all he had. Dear God, he prayed as a darkness fell, my life is in your hands.

There are many ways of waking up and some of them are very cruel. Try getting hauled from a pool, your spine bruised so badly you can't tell you have arms. Or riding in an ambulance, EMTs murmuring across your body like undertakers to your past.

For months, he lay in a string of rehab centers, his vertebrae severely damaged, a stranger to himself from the neck down. He couldn't shake his fists, so he balled up his mind. "You're still the same person," his parents, Ubaldo and Elena, told him. "Look at me!" he wanted to shout. His friends never came by, but the images wouldn't leave: Robert chucking fastballs, teasing girls, romping with his dog. His mind, a projectionist from hell, flashed every detail that made up his life, everything to which he'd have to say goodbye.

He raged at God, refused therapy, laughed at anti-depressants. They made no dent. "Somebody kill me!" he'd scream when no one was there. "Get it over with!"

Eventually, his parents brought Robert home. They put him in his old bedroom. The kids across the street, playing ball? "I wanted to blow up the field," he says.

One day, with no more warning than he'd had before the accident, his arms tingled. Some swelling had subsided. He couldn't move his hands, but he found himself swinging his arms from the shoulders.

If Robert Florio's life was a darkened room, a sliver of light had entered. Toward it, he ran.

Maybe it started when he realized his dog, Fluffy, unlike his friends, was always there. Or when someone brought him his old PlayStation, the one with the skateboarding game. When they put it on his chest, he worked the joystick with his mouth.

If he could use a joystick, why not a brush? He'd always been good at art. Elena got him paints and a book. He mixed oils on paper; colors awoke. He got a Fluffy photo and gazed for hours.

The fur was so complex, and he nailed a bit of that, but the eyes - those were what startled him. "Suddenly, I saw Fluffy looking at me from the canvas," he says.

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