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Published:December 1st, 2006 10:36 EST
Unique Strokes From One's Palette of Life

Unique Strokes From One's Palette of Life

By Michael Costello

She is surrounded by art.  From the ceiling, beams of light illuminate photography and abstract designs as they hang in assorted order.  Still life and mixed media pieces cover the walls next to her. In the cluttered, contemporary studio, Evonne Nicholson, 35, is learning new painting techniques, including ways to depict lighting patterns.

  "Where`s your light source coming from, here?" art instructor Helen Panzironi asked Evonne. "That`s what you need to figure out."  

     Panzironi then stepped into the glow of the studio`s track lighting. She pointed to areas where the light shone onto her clothing. 

     "Can you see any of that on me? Can you see how that reflects?"

 Evonne nodded.

   "The same thing could be happening here," Panzironi said, pointing to Evonne`s piece. "It could be reflecting off the grass."

    "If I would have known that, I could have done it before," said Evonne.
  Evonne is ready to paint.  She begins.

   Evonne has decided to work on the sky. She turns to a cardboard palette where her brush makes contact with small puddles of blue, white and black paint, mixing them together into an even consistency.  She then faces the painting`s surface, lowers her brush, and begins filling in the blank space with a pigment similar to clouds seen in the distance on a slightly overcast day.  

   The sky may be the limit for Evonne as her artwork has become a catalyst for experiencing a great deal of personal achievement in a lifestyle so dependent on others for tasks such as changing her clothes, eating and bathing.

   Evonne lives with the physical restraints that affect nearly 800,000 Americans with her same condition, caused by injury or underdevelopment of the cerebrum.

   Evonne suffers from cerebral palsy.  She has since birth.

   As her mother was in labor, Evonne emerged from the birth canal with her umbilical cord wrapped tightly around her neck.  She was forcibly repositioned for delivery, but the damage had already been done.  The few moments of suffocation had cut off the flow of oxygen to Evonne`s infant brain.  All of a sudden, cerebral palsy had permanently become part of her life.

 The outlook among medical professionals was bleak.

    Doctors predicted Evonne would not last beyond her infancy.

  She was labeled mentally retarded. 

Her parents were asked if they wanted to keep their newborn daughter.  

  Although cerebral palsy restricts Evonne`s muscles, her mental capability remains unaffected.  She can recall her childhood, what it was like to grow up different.  Early on, she was fully aware when a doctor repeated to Evonne`s mother the sentiment expressed after her birth. 

"One time I remember I was about five, and he said again that I was going to die," she said.
 Evonne`s mother, emotionally shattered by the physician`s comments, picked up her daughter and carried her out of the office. Weeping profusely, she walked away with her arms locked around young Evonne, who was fully cognizant of the doctor`s prediction. 

The two were devastated.  

  Evonne would not forget the day she and her mother shed tears over the remarks she heard from the doctor, predicting her death.

  "I can remember that he [the doctor] said that," Evonne said. "And mom and I cried."

  Thirty years later, Evonne lives in her own home, with her father Bill, 60.

 When Evonne talks, she communicates through an interpreter, 23 year-old Melissa Lazzell, Evonne`s full-time caregiver.  She spends Monday through Friday with Evonne, from early in the morning until late in the afternoon.  In a field where professionals earn generally low wages and experience a high turnover rate, Lazzell has remained with Evonne for three years, building a relationship that has practically made her part of the family.

    Yeah she`s probably as big a part of the family as any part of the family, " said Bill, because she spends more time with her than anybody. "

 Evonne has established herself as a well known figure in Morgantown`s art community.  She cannot paint with her hands.  Instead, she uses a head pointer, an apparatus with several straps that make the device attachable to her head.  In front of her face, bent metal rods lead from just above her ears, merging into a single unit.  Taped to the very end of the device is a marker for writing, as well as small blue tube that can hold paintbrushes.

  That`s how I got, " Evonne started, but as is often the case, the next word she uttered was inaudible to Lazzell. Letter by letter, Evonne began to spell. 

  T? " asked Lazzell. 

Evonne confirmed, then continued.

  H - R - O, " Lazzell repeated before realizing what Evonne was trying to say. 

Oh ok, that`s how you got through school, one of those. "  

Evonne nodded her head in obvious agreement.  

designed for use with a typewriter, the head pointer Evonne uses for painting today accompanied her from elementary school through her graduation from University High School.

 Around two years ago, Evonne started painting as a hobby.  Her work soon caught the eye of those around her.  

My friends kept saying, "You`re good at that. You should take classes and sell them [paintings] to your friends to hang`, " she recalled. They said, "You need to call Helen.` "  

Panzironi is the director of the fine arts program at the West Virginia University Center For Excellence in Disabilities.  She has worked with dozens of disabled artists in the state. Panzironi was also impressed by Evonne`s work at the onset of their relationship.

  I was really surprised by how bright she was right away, " she said.

   If I would have looked at her art 20 years ago, I would have know this is really nice, but let`s find something else for Evonne.` Now I`m looking at is as something she likes, something that is motivational for her, " Panzironi said. I automatically saw it as a strength and I began to think, "How can I help her do this?` "

Panzironi has a strong connection to artists with disabilities. 

 Her mother made a profession out of portraiture. She was struck by an automobile at more than 80 years old, and returned to painting as part of her therapy. 

  Her father was an ecclesiastical artist, working professionally in religious venues.   

   "My father was the best draftsperson I ever saw," she said. "He was really good."

   He, too, would become disabled.

 One day in the 1960s, the large man from a strong Italian bloodline of professional artists, stepped back to look at his work, a mural in progress at New York`s St. John`s Cathedral.  Within seconds he was lying on the concrete floor with a severe brain injury, having fallen 12 feet from the scaffolding. 

   An eye became crossed, hearing was lost in one ear and he no longer possessed the ability to work with his right hand. 

He soon learned to paint with his left hand, helping him overcome the depression he experienced in the aftermath of the accident.  

In Panzironi`s office, on the wall facing her desk, are two similar landscapes painted by her father.  One painted with his right hand, the other painted after the accident, with his left.   

  In Panzironi "s instructional studio, art from the many individuals she has worked with cover the walls, including multiple works painted by Evonne.   

   What sets Evonne apart is her sincere desire to get better, " Panzironi said. Commitment, perseverance, she has what it takes to do something with her art. "   

The condition Evonne experiences sometimes leads her into deep spells of depression, but she says painting helps her overcome those feelings as she realizes a sensation of independence.

  That is something I can do by myself, " she said of her art. I can do a lot for myself. "

 Nearly a week has gone by since she last visited Panzironi.  Evonne sits in the floor of her Highland Avenue home, in front of her living room couch, with her medium-length brown hair pulled back to stay out of her face as she paints.  On her knees, she looks down to a painting she started nearly three months ago.  It is a vibrant scene, with shades of violet, bright green grass and distinctly red flowers.  She is implementing the techniques learned from Panzironi at the studio.  She is adding highlights to the stems of the plants.       

Flowers are a recurring theme in her work. In Evonne`s bedroom are framed prints of Red Poppy " and Black Hollyhock, " famous floral representations from her favorite artist, Georgia O`Keeffe.

Spanning the entirety of a single wall of Evonne`s living room are several connected sheets of large, white paper covered with short phrases and colorful sketches depicting her personal goals.  The top left corner reads, Evonne`s path to sanity and love, " in large letters.

  Certain words such as love " and independent " stand out.

  At the far right side of the paper is a palette and paintbrush drawn with markers labeled Art as business. "  Directly to the right, at the end of the series of goals is a space that simply reads The Dream. "

 Most of Evonne`s personal goals are interconnected, but her art is a dominant theme as the list goes on. 
   Gallery in home. "

  Get digital camera to show work. "

    Local venues to show work. "

 Much of the satisfaction Evonne experiences from her art comes in the form of financial independence.  Selling her work means a lot to Evonne, who lives on a low, fixed income.  She has sold nearly 15 paintings, some to friends, others at exhibitions. She wishes to make art her profession. 

Evonne recently had her own business cards printed to help promote her work.  

   Unique Creations, " the card says. Acrylic Painting with Headpointer. "

   At the bottom, in plain black text, the card reads, Willing to . "

  Last February, Evonne`s work was featured at the Charleston Civic Center in a show for artists with disabilities.  She sold two pgs at the show.

  In June, her work went on display at the Paul Mesaros Gallery in the WVU Creative Arts Center as part of a juried exhibition. One of told Evonne that out of the show`s participants she had made the most progress over the past year.  Her painting was sold and now appears on the back cover of Developments, " the newsletter for the Center for Excellence in Disabilities.  

  In December, Evonne will have an open house.  She will exhibit her paintings inside her home, while celebrating the progress she has made toward her many personal goals, progress toward The Dream. "  
About a half-hour has elapsed since Evonne last resumed her work.

   She begins to feel pain in her hips and legs from sitting on the floor.  However, she wishes to keep painting.  Lazzell picks up Evonne, and places her in her wheelchair, held steady by her father.  Lazzell starts to move the painting materials to the kitchen table, where Evonne can sit upright, with less discomfort.  

   Lazzell picks up the head pointer and straps it back on to Evonne`s head. 

  There you go, " she said to Evonne.

 With a back and forth motion of her head, Evonne applies a small amount of light blue paint to her brush`s fibers.

 She leans forward, to place the end of the brush at the top portion of her painting, reaching, once again, for the sky.