Determination, discipline help artist overcome big challenge

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Light filters through the lacy curtains in Sharon Richardson’s neat, airy studio on North Pearl Street. She reaches carefully for the familiar brush, protruding now from a bundle of straws taped together to form a larger handle easier for her to hold.

She dabs and strokes the canvas with confidence, boldly touching up and perfecting the colors on a painting of the cypress pond at Melrose, the landscape now under way on her easel.

Painting again. Feeling alive again. Determined that she will not give up and not give in to the malady that nearly stole from her the ability to continue her work.

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Richardson suffers from post polio syndrome, a neurological illness that produces muscle weakness, pain and degeneration; severe fatigue; and swallowing and respiratory problems.

&uot;I have had a really long normal life as compared to most people,&uot; Richardson said. &uot;The younger you are when you have polio, the less effect it has on you usually. But it depends on how severe it was. Part of it is luck and part of it is how young you are when you have it.&uot;

Richardson was an infant &045; two months old &045; when polio struck her tiny body. She spent six weeks in a polio hospital in Vicksburg and recovered. She had no resulting paralysis and seemed to have no alarming symptoms &045; not until one month after she turned 56.

&uot;In an eight-month period, beginning in June 2002, I experienced progressive muscle weakness in my arms, legs, tongue, jaws and neck,&uot; she said. &uot;When I sought medical opinion, I discovered there was no consensus, even among the physiatrists, for treatment of post polio syndrome.&uot;

Others with the syndrome have had the same experience, Richardson said. &uot;Even though medical experts are slowly becoming more educated about it, more research is sorely needed.&uot;

Determination to work through her debilitations has brought her to a new stage 16 months after the initial onset of the post polio symptoms.

She had lost the use of her right arm. She bought voice-activated software for her computer but over-used it. She lost her voice. Swallowing was difficult. She could not chew food. Her world turned grim for those months when she struggled to regain her strength.

Her husband, Jim Barnett, was her mouthpiece and her care giver. &uot;I couldn’t be this far along without him,&uot; she said. &uot;I’ve been devastated. He always has been able to sense when I was down and would take extra time to be with me.&uot;

Now she is painting again. &uot;I came into the studio every day for about two weeks before I tried to do anything. I’d sit and cry and think, ‘I’ll never be able to paint again.’ The day that I found I could paint with my left hand, I cried.&uot;

Not only does she do it, but her left-handed paintings are equally as beautiful and expert as any of her former paintings.

What’s more, she works today toward a goal &045; 11 new paintings to go to Brown’s Fine Art Gallery in Jackson for a December fund-raiser for the March of Dimes &045; designated for post polio syndrome research.

March of Dimes efforts virtually have wiped out the polio virus worldwide. Richardson hopes one day the same can be said of post polio syndrome.

Determination put her back on track. But strict routine keeps her going. A digital timer reminds her throughout the day to stop and to rest.

&uot;Twenty minutes of activity is followed by 10 to 20 minutes of total rest with neck support,&uot; she said. &uot;Trial and error have taught me that cheating the timer is not worth the severely painful consequences and the tedious, slow journey back to my previous level of functioning.&uot;

The new phase of her life as an artist has required many other adjustments, as well. Once she found she could paint with the left hand, she had to reverse totally the arrangement of her studio in order for the light to fall appropriately on the canvas. &uot;And I had to stop and visualize what I was doing in order to do it left-handed.&uot;

On advice from a neighbor, she installed an electric drill where the crank on her easel had been, as moving the easel up and down required too much of her limited energy and strength. &uot;I just leave the drill in place and pull the trigger to ratchet it up to any height I want,&uot; she said, demonstrating it.

And there were the straws. &uot;The nerve damage I have in both arms makes it painful to hold small objects. I had all these straws and just made a little jacket for the brush.&uot;

She has found the positions where her left arm and neck are comfortable while she paints. She does not veer far from those positions. And by budgeting the time and functions she requires of each arm and hand during the day, she has reached a better balance.

&uot;I think I like what I’m doing,&uot; she said. &uot;And I can still sign my name with my right hand.&uot;

A painter for more than 30 years, Richardson cannot imagine not pursuing her art. Her social life must be limited. She tries to build up reserve to go to special events.

In Natchez, her works are at Morris Gallery on Franklin Street. She attended a function there recently . &uot;I was able to go a whole hour before the sledgehammer hit,&uot; she said.

Work. Rest. Work. Rest. She has come to terms with the new segmented way she has to live her life. Placing her hand on her head, she said, &uot;But I still have this mind in here that doesn’t say no.&uot;