DATE: 1 June 2009
RELEASE NO: 09-13
Grace Hill patient finds hope, inspiration through art
Elizabeth Coleman creates her artwork at her kitchen table.
Photo by Gerald Sonnenberg
By Mr. Gerald Sonnenberg
ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Her house is a smaller, older home in a quiet neighborhood in North St. Louis. A long wooden walkway extends upward from the driveway, then left to the front door. Inside, the house is cozy, neat and clean. There is a small kitchen toward the back, and in a corner next to a window is where you’ll usually find Elizabeth Coleman—an energetic and enthusiastic patient and advisor to the Grace Hill Neighborhood Health Center’s (GHNHC) Board of Directors.
She is an avid supporter and advocate for GHNHC known for saying, “I became a neighbor to Grace Hill when Grace Hill became a neighbor to me.” She is also a mother and grandmother who loves to create art. However, when she talks about her life, you realize her art is not just about being creative. It is also a way to deal with her difficult experiences.
In the kitchen, she sits at a chair with her back toward a window that allows what daylight can get through during this particularly cold and cloudy spring day to cascade onto the table. There, her hand clutches a pencil and is busily sketching a cottonwood tree. The movement is quick and not completely controllable due to a hereditary nerve disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease—named for the three physicians who identified it in 1886. Yet, the tree gradually begins to live in black and white with each additional pass of the pencil lead. Her concentration is unyielding.
Elizabeth has been a part of GHNHC since 2003 when she began to receive medical care after becoming disabled and homeless. It was through her window in the nursing home where she lived then that she could see the tree she was drawing this day. “It was across the street in a park,” she said.
Elizabeth says her drawing is therapeutic for her mind, as well as her hand—just as it has been since she was a child. Her disability is the result of a bullet wound she received in the hip during a drive-by shooting in South St. Louis. Elizabeth was just 10-years old then. Though today she can walk with assistance, she spends much of her time in a wheelchair.
Putting away the pencil and drawing paper, she stands with the help of a cane and retrieves some watercolor paints and paper. Though she struggles a little bit to squeeze the paint onto a freshly water-dipped brush, she succeeds and then begins creating a cascade of color with each stroke, from reds to yellows and pinks and blues to oranges.
“I didn’t have any crayons as a kid,” she says. “I love the color combinations. My inspiration comes from flowers. I love to draw flowers—especially roses.”
Elizabeth was inspired to draw as a young girl. It was relaxing and an outlet while dealing with the pain resulting from the bullet wound.
She said her skill comes naturally. Other than taking an art class in high school, she has never taken lessons. However, that didn’t stop her from winning two awards during high school. The first award came from the Planetarium and St. Louis Zoo for a Christmas poster she created. The next award she feels is the better of the two, and she smiles with pride when she speaks of it.
In 1972, she drew a float for the Veiled Prophet Parade. At that time the parade was held in the fall around Halloween. Her drawn creation of a float was called “Halloween Extravaganza” and featured a pumpkin and ghosts. She is also very proud of a pirate she submitted to an art school. “I received a 98%,” she says, smiling.
Not only does she draw with pencils and paint with water colors, she also likes to sculpt. She loves to create what she sees, and a sketchbook she began at the nursing home is testimony to her dedication. It is nearly filled with images of flowers, churches and colorful collages she designs by using a ruler to randomly create shapes. Elizabeth then brings the sketches to life by using colored pencils to add depth and shadow.
The art set she uses now is neat and orderly. It has just about everything she needs to fulfill her love of drawing, including pencils, watercolor paints, and art pads. It also folds out to become an easel. It’s a far cry from the first set that was presented to her at the nursing home. She said that one once belonged to a former resident who passed away. She was grateful even though it had been in storage for about 20 years, and was falling apart and full of dried paints. She appreciated that the staff members noticed her talent and gave the set to her. In 2005, she was able to buy her current set.
Elizabeth’s skill seems to have been passed down to her granddaughter who has contributed her own detailed watercolor paintings that Elizabeth proudly displays in her living room. For the immediate future, Elizabeth plans to continue her advocacy for GHNHC, and to finish a book of art she is creating for her daughter and granddaughter.
For herself, she hopes to eventually make a career of the talent she has been nurturing so many years. “I would like to further my gift if possible. You never know. Good always comes out of dark clouds. There is always a silver lining.”