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Morris artist relearns his skills after stroke

MORRIS – Six years ago, Art Ashcraft never imagined he would be back in front of a canvas.

He had just suffered a brain stem stroke which, according to Art, is "about as serious as you can get."

Doctors predicted his left side would be immobilized for the rest of his life. He would lose the use of his left arm and left leg. He may never walk the same or talk the same, and he certainly would never paint again.

But that was six years ago. Slowly, and with much dedication Art surprised his doctor's, and himself.

Next month, Ashcraft – a Morris native – will be featured at Lonnie's Arts Gallery, displaying a deluge of paintings, drawings and mixed-media pieces that he created in the years following his stroke – a "remarkable" collection that attests to the therapeutic power of painting, gallery owner Lonnie Mathison said.

"That's the healing power of art," Mathison said. "Sometimes the therapist can't do what your own passion can."

For Art, painting and drawing was integral to his stroke recovery. Physically, using the paintbrush helped strengthen and re-teach himself muscle control. Emotionally, Art used painting as a way to sort through the scarring experience.

"There was psychological trauma with my stroke. I was 32 when I had it, and I felt like I was 80," he said.

The recovery process was, at times, maddening for Art and involved several paintbrushes pushed through canvases due to unmanageable muscles. The early recovery paintings were all in gray-scale as he had lost his ability to see color, something he cherishes today.

"I pay closer attention to what colors I use and how I use them," he said.

Although he worked tirelessly to re-establish his talents, Art didn't think he'd be able to work commercially.

"At one point, I was in my studio thinking, 'What am I going to do with all of this stuff,'" he said.

His wife Rachel stood by Art through the entire process and is undeniably proud of his progress.

"He worked incredibly hard to get to where he is today," she said.

Hard work is something Art knows well.

As head of maintenance for the Grundy County Courthouse, he puts in full-time, eight to 10 hour days that begin around 8 a.m. each morning. After work, he helps Rachel with the kids – a 1-year-old and 4-year-old – before stealing off to his studio late at night.

When he suffered the stroke, Art was in the process of completing a mural inside the courthouse that depicted local history.

Art said county clerk and recorder Lana Phillips approached him about painting the mural because she had seen him in the office, spending most of his breaks drawing in his sketchbook.

He painted half of the mural and returned years later to complete it, after his stroke.

"The mural truly enriches the county recorder’s office, and many people who visit the courthouse often comment on the mural’s realistic portrayal of our county," Phillips said. "It is quite remarkable and amazing that Art was able to return and finish the work."

Another painting – a patriotic ode to Sept. 11 and the Oklahoma City bombings – was so loved by state Rep. John Anthony, R-Plainfield, that Anthony decided to hang it in his Springfield office.

"As soon as I saw it, my eyes immediately gravitated toward it," Anthony said. "Art is a great person and a really wonderful artist."

Art said he tries to avoid conforming to one style of work as he feels it can "trap" an artist.

"I try to be more free and inspired to try different things and experiment, which has led to some very interesting turns," he said.

Recently, he began using real butterflies in some of his work. One such painting will be up for auction this Saturday at the Operation St. Nick "Christmas in July" fundraiser.

The open house at Lonnie's gallery will showcase everything from his earliest work to his most-recent, including his sketchbook he kept while recovering in the hospital.

The opening of his show marks a milestone for Art – the six-year anniversary of his stroke.

Moving forward, he said he will continue to paint, challenging himself to try new, experimental ways to make art.

"I would just like to keep expressing myself in a manner that appeals to the public and maybe opens some eyes or changes some views."

Ashcraft at Lonnie's Arts Gallery

When: 5 to 9 p.m. Aug. 16

Where: 108 W. Washington St., Morris

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