- Associated Press - Friday, August 29, 2014

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - Steven Petrie is an artist.

Whenever he wants to draw, he gets out his art supplies. When he’s finished, he pushes them away and says, “done.” He even signs some of his pieces, with a loop and some lines at the bottom right corner of his paintings, the Lawrence Journal-World reported (https://bit.ly/1pysTBj ).

The 39-year-old Lawrence man might be mostly nonverbal, the result of an oxygen loss around the time of his birth that left him with severe cognitive impairments, but he can communicate. He tells you - with sounds, with his body language, with his emotions - exactly how he’s feeling and what he wants to do. So, yes, Petrie is an artist.

This was a surprise even to his family, who had been Petrie’s primary caretakers until his mother, Laura, died from cancer in 2007 at the age of 69. Laura Petrie wanted her son to live at home for as long as possible, to keep him out of an institution where he might be neglected or marginalized. But his remaining family members say she would be proud to see him now, happy and full of life and realizing his creative potential, even though he now lives in a group home in Lawrence.

Petrie’s art career started a little more than a year ago, when his caregivers with Lawrence-based Community Living Opportunities, Al Brownlow and Ashlyn Clark, brought him a dry erase board and markers. He started drawing - and never stopped.

“He just exploded,” Brownlow said. “It was in him all the time. We didn’t even have to encourage him.”

Petrie has been so prolific in his drawing and painting over past the 15 months that Brownlow and Clark decided to help him sell his artwork. They set him up with a website and his own Etsy page, and he now has his own show at Z’s Divine Espresso, 1800 E. 23rd St., Suite A, where his art will be displayed through September.

“We never knew we had an artist in the family,” said Teri Smith, one of Steven’s sisters. “I think it’s really awesome that these individuals saw the potential in Steven and were able to find a creative outlet for him that he can enjoy and express what’s really inside of him.”

After the Petries adopted Steven as an infant from some fellow congregants at their church who couldn’t care for him themselves, Laura Petrie vowed he would have as normal a life as possible. She kept him in public school, where he attended his senior prom and graduated from high school.

A 1979 Journal-World article, which she kept in a scrapbook for Steven, detailed Laura’s exhaustive efforts to rehabilitate Steven, after doctors told her he would never walk or talk. She used cutting-edge methods for neurological rehabilitation, getting an individualized treatment plan from the Pennsylvania-based Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, which uses sensory stimulation and maximum motor opportunity to help people like Steven beat their prognoses. She kept his mind active and attitude positive, eventually teaching him to communicate and get around on his own.

“She worked so hard to get him to this level,” Smith said, noting that she really instilled in him a sense of manners. “Her motto was to never give up.”

Her persistence paid off, as Steven has already sold several paintings and sets of greeting cards with his artwork printed on the front, giving him a source of income to go with a sense of accomplishment.

His show at Z’s is called “Wonderful Me,” inspired by a conversation his caregivers had with him. They asked Steven what he would like to do if he could be anything else: the president, a superhero. No, he said, he loved being him.

While Petrie’s pictures may look like random brush strokes, his caregivers say there’s more to it. “I know in each one of them there’s something special because no two of them are alike,” Brownlow said, adding that Petrie uses different color schemes in each work. Brownlow pointed to one that resembled a bouquet of flowers. And drawing isn’t Petrie’s only artistic interest. He loves to dance and sing along to songs on the radio, with a particular affinity for classic rock.

Brownlow and Clark’s relationship with Steven goes way beyond client and caregiver.

On a recent day at Z’s, where Petrie loves the hot chocolate, he put Brownlow in a headlock before giving him a bear hug. Later, Petrie held a hand up to his face while laughing hysterically at Clark; she tried to stay stoic but eventually couldn’t help it anymore, bursting out in laughter. “This doesn’t feel like a job,” she said.

“He’s positive and caring and compassionate,” Brownlow added. “He teaches you be to more patient. He really teaches you to let go.”

Smith is confident her mother, who never wanted Steven to live outside the home, would be happy to see him doing so well.

“I believe she’s watching over us,” Smith said. “I think she had a part in picking these individuals. She would have wanted this for Steven.”


Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, https://www.ljworld.com

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