- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

BATESVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Dipping her brush into the white paint, Sharon Scarbrough steadies herself as she adds the color against the stark contrast of a blue background. The snow-capped mountains need more definition.

When people see her artwork and say they couldn’t paint like her using their own two hands, she just smiles. “I tell ‘em I can’t either,” the 70-year-old says with a laugh.

For years, Scarbrough loved watching Bob Ross on PBS create works of art including his “happy little trees” and often wondered if she could do the same, going as far as to purchase the needed supplies and take one lesson. She eventually gave them away and gave up out of frustration.

But today, at Mountain Meadows nursing and rehab at Southside, she has the time. A resident for nearly two years, it was about 15 months ago that Scarbrough picked up a paint brush again - with her teeth, the Batesville Guard (https://bit.ly/1uEJV2k ) reported.

It only seemed natural as since the age of 27 she has done most things using her teeth while suffering from adult-onset spinal muscular atrophy, a disorder that affects the control of muscle movement and is caused by a loss of specialized nerve cells connected to the spinal cord.

When residents were encouraged to participate in a poster art activity, Scarbrough opted not to as it would involve holding markers with her teeth. However, she wondered how a brush would work and soon discovered she could paint just as she’d always wanted.

Scarbrough sketches her scenes first, preferring landscapes over other subjects as they show off “God’s creations.” She also includes man-made skylines and boats, but those are “minute in comparison” to his work, she says.

While most reflect bright colors, and even Hawaii where she spent two years when her father was stationed on the islands in the service, one piece takes her back to a bad day. “I did that on a day I was really angry,” she said, looking at the picture hanging on her wall of the sun peeking out of a dark sky and a sailboat on dark blue water. The more she painted, the less mad she became. “I lost my anger by the time I got to the sailboat,” she says.

But relaxing wouldn’t describe how she feels when the brush meets the canvas. “I’m OCD. I get upset with it if it’s not right,” she said, laughing.

Through the Internet, however, she would discover a world of other people who, like her, use their mouths and even feet, to draw and paint. Via The Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World, she was put in contact with Dale Tabor of Harrison, an artist who also uses his teeth. A visit by Tabor would allow Scarbrough to learn tips, tricks as well as advice including how not to “get caught up in the perfect painting,” but to work on several at once. He’s also encouraged her to work with acrylics rather than the watercolors she’s used to, but the medium has proven to be challenging, but that’s something she knows she needs.

Scarbrough has received many compliments on the details to her work but believes they pale in comparison with Tabor’s pieces. Too many details, she said, is not something she needs, as she can only paint 15 minutes at a time as it wears on her body, particularly her neck and other muscles that will eventually lose movement. She can go weeks or months without painting because her health won’t always allow. “Time goes by a long time that I don’t want to touch the brush,” she said, noting the disease has resulted in her not being able to feed herself and is currently affecting the glands in her throat.

Scarbrough was working as a clerk typist in the mid-‘70s when the disease began taking its toll. “At the time, doctors didn’t know what was wrong.”

Her oldest son, Ed Martin, was about 8 at the time while youngest son, Phillip Rowland, was about 18 months old and still in diapers. “As long as he was dressed, I could pick him up and wrap my arms around him,” she said, explaining how she’d use her teeth to grab his shirt.

Disposable diapers were just becoming popular and would prove to be a godsend, but the difficulties of the disease would prove too hard for her husband, who left after three years.

She would later meet Vearl, the man she considers to be the love of her life. A widower and 25 years her senior, Vearl, she said, was adamant about being with her despite her arguing with him that he didn’t need to “start over” with a family so late in life. Scarbrough said he simply told her, “I think I do” and they were married, eventually moving to Batesville in the early 1980s after his retirement from the railroad. “He was the most loving person,” she said.

Vearl died in 1994 after 16 years of marriage.

As a teenager, Ed would help out however he could, which included the grocery shopping, but when she got her first electric wheelchair in 1977, she and her sons could make the trips together. “I was free,” Scarbrough said, noting it would take seven years before doctors diagnosed her with spinal muscular atrophy.

For Rowland, 42, there was never anything out of the ordinary about how he and his brother were raised. They also didn’t escape discipline when it was warranted as Mom always found a way. “She would bite me on the back of the hand,” he said, “and it killed me to have my mom do that.” No skin was ever broken nor did it draw blood, but today, what might be considered abuse to some, “was far from it,” he said.

Never one for relying on others for assistance, Scarbrough, Rowland said, strives for her independence and very rarely will ask for help unless it’s absolutely needed. The decision to enter the nursing home was also her own. The single most positive influence in his life, “I’m heavily influenced by the type of person she is,” he said, adding that her disability if anything changed his outlook on how he views others, “to accept people as people and not for their illness,” because most often, people with disabilities appreciate that.

Impressed when he first saw her artwork, Rowland, who lives in Louisiana, said he would love to have a few pieces for himself.

Although she considers painting to be a hobby, Scarbrough said her ministry as a Jehovah’s Witness is her work. Ten years ago she began learning Spanish to communicate the word of God to the Hispanic and Latino populations in Batesville, eventually spending five years in the Hispanic congregation.

As she continues to work on small paintings for a crafts fair planned later this fall at Mountain Meadows, Scarbrough feels blessed to be somewhere that encourages her art, as it can be expensive. “I’m so glad I’m here with such a great activity program . that supplies all my supplies.”

She’s also been encouraged to apply for a scholarship through the MFPA to become a student member, receive formal training and supplies, which could lead to becoming a full member of the organization, if approved.

“I’m not sure of the advantages,” she says, the brush still in mouth as she works on her canvas, “but I’m willing to find out.”


Information from: Batesville Guard, https://www.guardonline.com/

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