The Art of Healing
Former patients find that adversity can be transformed into a thing of beauty.
When they were children, they faced obstacles that would bring most adults to their knees.
Mary Margaret Pierce: brain tumor. Gracie Earnest: brain trauma. Jeremy Thomley: cystic fibrosis.
All became patients at Batson Children’s Hospital. And then, all became artists.
In reality, they were artists from the day they were born; it was adversity that shaped the type of artists they would become.
MARY MARGARET PIERCE
Normally, Mary Margaret Pierce works with well-worn window frames, but the ones for her display at Batson are new. She “stressed” them to make them appear old, using a sander and heat and other methods.
You are Mary Margaret Pierce, 16, of Columbia – star softball player, star of a school musical and (you hope) future star of the high school prom – and you’re told you have a brain tumor.
Your life has always been bright and vibrant, like a stained-glass window. And now you learn that its resemblance to windows is even more profound.
What do you do when you learn that you’re breakable?
Today, at age 27, she likes things that come with a story.
She especially likes old windows, and thinks of each one as a link between inside and outside, between our homes and the universal vistas we cherish.
“We see the dog barking outside through it,” she said. “We see the family coming home through it. We see kids playing outside. We see the rain and the sun.”
She sees all these things in her mind as well: her own memories and those she imagines once belonged to someone else, even as she remakes and reframes their battered pieces into something glorious and new. She is a mosaic/stained glass artist; windows – usually old and discarded – are her frames.
She gives something broken or breakable another chance – like the chance she needed when she was 16 and her health shattered.
It had come at her hard. “I felt like I had ropes in my neck,” she said.
Her vision would go black, “as if someone had turned a switch off.”
She had “insane” headaches. A softball pitcher who had injured her shoulder, she went to a sports medicine doctor, who associated the injury with her migraines.
A CT scan showed otherwise.
“The bottom falls out of your world,” said Charlotte Pierce, her mom.
It was medulloblastoma, a tumor that tends to spread to other parts of the brain and spinal cord.
“It was: ‘Oh; OK. We’re actually calling this something now,’” Mary Margaret said. Giving it a name, she said, was a “relief.”
At Batson, where she had been transferred from a Hattiesburg hospital, doctors removed the tumor. But, as a precaution, she would still require radiation and chemotherapy.
“I didn’t have time for this,” she said. “This would interfere with softball. I had a prom to go to.
“I had no idea what I was about to go through.”
The treatments made her so sick, her mother said, “we thought we’d lose her.”
Many of her friends moved on.
“It was a scary thing to see this emaciated girl in a wheelchair,” Mary Margaret said.
After a while, she didn’t ask them to come around anymore.
Still, even as her body shrank, she grew – emotionally.
“In high school, you normally don’t have to deal with your own mortality, or someone else’s,” she said.
“It was hard to relate to people my age who worried about what to wear to the football game.
“The biggest thing I missed was being able to be a kid, to be unaware of life’s harsh reality.
“But the only thing I regret is not embracing the fact that I was sick and not having fun with it. Like when my hair fell out during chemo. I wish I had gotten a big, hot-pink wig and rocked that wig.”
One day before treatments began, as she lay asleep in a hospital bed, a feeling of well-being flooded her body.
“It was like swallowing something really warm that goes down your chest, except it kept going,” she said. “I woke up and my minister was praying over me.
“It was a moment of peace; whether I survived, I would be taken care of. That’s all I needed to know.”
And, of course, she was right. Some months later, she stopped losing weight.
But, by her senior year, she had missed a lot of school. Unwilling to repeat a year because of her absences, she took the GED, then the ACT, and entered Mississippi State University. She studied fashion merchandising and took art classes without graduating.
At one point, she lived in the Jackson area, selling furniture, then cars.
“I hated it,” she said.
Once, on an off-day, she began browsing a mosaics shop. Eventually, she took mosaic classes, she said.
“Then, one day, I saw a stack of windows in the corner, and that’s all she wrote.
“To me, they looked like blank canvases; ‘I can do something with that.’”
Drawing, painting had always attracted her. This was even better.
Mary Margaret began creating her art about four years ago and now uses space in a shop owned by her cousin and friend, a carpenter/cabinetmaker.
She orders glass by the sheet and uses broken bottles. Her tools include cutter wheels, artist’s paintbrushes and a mosaic adhesive.
The windows are salvaged from flea markets or piles of trash at construction sites or demolished homes. Sometimes, older residents recognize a window’s pedigree: “So-and-so lived in that house.”
Her art is on display at the Artwistic Revolution, a downtown Columbia gallery. Her works explode with color in floral, star and other patterns. One is titled Que Sera Sera, after a song from one of her favorite movies, The Man Who Knew Too Much.
In February, she finished a large window that dazzles the eye with sun and rainbow themes. The window is on display at Batson.
People cannot resist touching her windows. She cannot forget the girl who kept running her hands over one: “I just knew she was going to slice her hands. But she kept saying, ‘I can see it; I can see it. I can see the colors.’”
The girl was blind.
Mary Margaret’s own hands and arms have been sliced and punctured; the scars are souvenirs from her sharp-edged art and from IV needles.
“Sometimes I don’t even feel it when I get poked,” she said. “Anyway, as someone told me, you’re not an artist until you hurt yourself.”
Working in her studio in a room set aside for her by her parents Eric and Gia Earnest, Gracie Earnest paints some of her favorite shapes: small birds, quail, dragonflies and crosses.
Gracie Earnest took to drawing when she was a girl, using the one hand that still moved and the fraction of her eyes that could still see.
Today, at 25, she is still left-handed, and left-seeing, because she has no choice.
But she has come far since the accident that shaved off the top of her mother’s car and sheared the top of her baby’s skull.
Gracie was 2 1/2; she was not supposed to ever breathe on her own again, or talk or, in spite of the bad hand it had dealt her, view the world with such pleasure and hope. All of which she does today.
“She’s like our Peter Pan child,” said her mom, Gia Earnest of Clinton. “She never grows up, and we’re very appreciative of that.”
After July 8, 1991, Gracie was not supposed to grow at all.
“I don’t remember what happened that night,” she said. “I do remember there was blood all over me.”
It was the night Gia had promised to buy her daughter some mermaid sandals. They piled into the car: Gia, Gia’s friend and her friend’s daughter, and Gracie, elevated in her car seat.
On U.S. 49 in Orange Grove, where they lived at the time, the driver of a flatbed trailer truck made a U-turn in the dark, his taillights broken. Gia did not see him in time. The car went under the truck, losing its roof, while Gracie, the only one hurt, almost lost her life.
In the emergency room, doctors told Gia and Eric Earnest that the swelling in their daughter’s brain would kill her. They had 72 hours to tell her goodbye.
After three days, her seizures started. After several months of hospital care, she was still breathing, but not talking or making a sound, even when needles jabbed the arm that could still feel them.
When Gracie Earnest was a young girl, her grandfather used to tell her, “‘Gracie, girl, you’re going to do something with your art one day.’ He’s my angel,” she said.
Weeks of speech therapy apparently were doing no good – although there was the day that Gracie seemed to notice the therapist’s toy dog when it barked.
The next day or so, Gia asked Gracie if she’d like some chicken noodle soup, not expecting a reply.
“And she barked,” Gia said.
Soon, Gracie was singing Deep and Wide, a favorite hymn.
Then, the words came. A precocious child who had been potty trained before the accident, Gracie suddenly asked her mom, “‘Where are my big-girl panties?’”
“It was a rocket ship after that,” Gia said, describing her daughter’s ascent.
“Amazing Grace” was born.
Her nickname really took off some time after the family moved to Clinton, when Gracie was 4 or 5, and she began seeing doctors at Batson Children’s Hospital.
Despite her progress, she was frequently hospitalized. At home, a constraining routine began.
Gracie had to be bathed. Her seizures were so frequent and severe, Gia had to stay home with her. The family couldn’t go out to dinner. Gracie couldn’t go on church trips or stay overnight with friends.
Finally, the year Gracie turned 13, surgeons decided to remove the left side of her brain – a hemispherectomy.
“We totally trusted Batson,” her mom said. “It was the best decision we ever made. We got our lives back.”
Since then, her seizures have dropped to about three per day; you would hardly know she was having one. In 2002, Gracie was the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Mississippi Champion.
Seven years later, she earned a certificate from Clinton High School, the year her sister Amy Beth graduated. Then, she watched her friends from school disappear as they took jobs or went to college.
Once, she found a job at a car dealership, but it didn’t work out.
Gracie can’t sit at a desk for long; she needs frequent breaks. She finds it difficult to sleep except during the day, often staying up all night.
Her parents worried about her state of mind.
“Everybody told her, ‘You can’t go to college and you can’t go to work,’ ” Gia said.
Though the accident had paralyzed Gracie on her right side, she has regained the use of her right leg. But she walks with a limp and still can’t use her right arm, although wrist surgery in October helped straighten it and ease her pain.
Part of the right side of her face is paralyzed. Her right field of vision remains dark in both eyes. To see anything, she has to turn her head to her right and slide her eyes to the left. She can’t drive, and the part of the brain that enabled her to manage money was lost in the surgery, Gia said.
“We had to find something she could do at home.”
For a while, Gracie had visited a pottery shop on Saturdays. She enjoyed being surrounded by the pieces on display, objects that had been, basically, earth – now re-made into works of art.
Gracie learned that she could order unfinished pottery, earthenware and paint it at home: owls, birdhouses, egg plates, butterflies, dragonflies, crosses.
She embellishes them now in her own workshop and then sells them on Facebook and at markets and festivals, where her mom peddles her own crafts.
At Christmas, Gracie donated the money she made from ornaments to Batson.
“I thought I would do something for them since they were so sweet to me,” she said.
For Gracie, Gia said, the important thing is this: “She has a job.”
At night, while her parents sleep, Gracie works alone, her paintbrush poised, her head cocked at the drab, bare shapes arranged in her room of possibilities, and she thinks, “What am I going to do to make this beautiful?”
Then she does her job – using the one hand that still moves and the fraction of her eyes that still see.
Displayed in Jeremy Thomley’s workshop is one of a series of lung sculptures – his “Anthem” Collection, a project he named for a work by author Ayn Rand, whose self-described philosophy, in part, was “the concept of man as a heroic being … with productive achievement as his noblest activity. …”
Jeremy Thomley must “take” his breaths, he says, because they will not come along quietly.
In spite of all the warnings to slow down and give it a rest, to acknowledge his breath-precious condition – no, because of those warnings – he has never surrendered. He will not let this thing define him.
He is not cystic fibrosis. He is not a lung-clogging, life-threatening chronic disease. He is Jeremy Thomley, artist and welder. Jeremy Thomley, rock climber, of all things.
He hangs onto life by his fingertips, not desperately, but joyfully and proudly, voluntarily ascending heights that would test healthy lungs – and this is not just a metaphor. He takes his breaths and he makes them like it.
“I’ve put myself in terrible situations,” he said, “just to see what would happen next.”
He is into rebellion, and there are few things more in-your-face than the pieces he builds in his Oak Grove workshop: “lungs” of steel, for instance. Even his process of creation smacks of audacity.
Of all the instruments he could use to make art and a living, a welding torch, with its lung-irritating, ozone-producing ways, is not the safest for him.
Tools and machines – the bigger and louder, the better – have always fascinated him.
As a toddler, her son enjoyed taking apart the dishwasher, said Jane Thomley of Hattiesburg.
Using a welding torch, Jeremy Thomley fine-tunes one of his metal gramophone sculptures.
One day, she heard the battering-ram sound of ice cubes being slaughtered in the kitchen. She found her son, age 4, trying to make a pina colada in the blender.
Struggling to keep up with him, she put him on a trampoline to wear him out.
She let him do things a parent with a cystic fibrosis child is cautioned against. The disease wasn’t going to define her either.
She accepted the diagnosis, not the prognosis. “Four or five years to live?” she said. “That was absurd. That was not acceptable.”
Jeremy is one of Jane’s three children, and the only one to get the disease.
The diagnosis was made at Batson when he was 4 months old. His symptoms included salty-tasting skin and a ruthless appetite. But he did not lose weight, not then or later. In the first grade, he took a “man’s lunch box” to school. Before bed every night, he had a steak. He ate eight meals a day.
His mom, Jeremy said, “was the best doctor I ever had.”
To unclog the mucous from his lungs, she performed the obligatory chest percussion on him when he was a child – but with a twist, tapping him firmly in time to recordings of military marches.
“‘We’re going to be warriors?’” he asked her one day.
“I said, ‘Yes, we’re going to wear capes and fight,’” Jane Thomley recalled. “He asked me if anyone ever won, and I said I didn’t think so, but he was going to be the first.”
She gave him momentum. The courage was his. Down with the flu a few years ago, he lay in a hospital bed, an IV stuck in one arm while he performed bicep curls with the other.
As a boy, he won drawing contests. As a teen, he made aquariums out of broken TV sets. This passion for creating grew with him, as did the size of his art. He became attracted to big, bold pieces, bursting with power in three dimensions: sculpture.
“I want to build things that will outlast me,” he said.
His workshop, located on the farm, is a chaotic collection of rusted car doors suspended from the ceiling, colored wine bottles, propane tanks, a mannequin torso, welding gloves, work benches, welding torches, shelves, metal sprockets, clamps, springs.
While some of his finished pieces are displayed here, one of the most massive rises 25 feet high outside the RAMP Sports factory in Park City, Utah: a Yeti made from recycled ski and snowboard scraps, created with fellow artist Daniel Bell.
Another stands on private property in Mississippi: a 30-foot high, 11,000-pound bottle tree named the Whomping Willow after the vicious plant from Harry Potter. Among its components are fragments of an old farm tractor.
“It’s telling stories that inspires me,” he said. In this case, the tractor tells the story: “It helped feed families.”
He had learned how to do this, how to weld, to turn metal into art, not long after he went out on his own and was living in the Florida Keys. He sold his creations there locally. Now, he sells them everywhere.
When he returned to Mississippi, he became friends with other artists, including Mary Margaret Pierce of Columbia, in the town where he lived for several years and where he helped start the Artwistic Revolution, the cooperative gallery that displays their art.
Sculpture became his “avenue for self-discovery.” But it isn’t his only one.
A member of the Mormon Church, he was on a church mission a few years ago in the mountains of Utah when he learned that rock climbing is a sport.
“I thought I was strong,” he said, “but when I went climbing with some guys I met there, I couldn’t do anything.” Now he can.
Sponsored by such companies as CamelBak, he built his own career, scaling heights in Canada, Spain, South Africa and, most recently, the 3,200-foot face of a tabletop mountain in Venezuela.
Through rock climbing, he discovered what his body can really do, which is a lot. He also discovered something else.
“The adrenaline, when you’re afraid, is amazing,” he said. It puts you in the moment. It stops time.
He’s 31 now, about six times older than he’s supposed to be, according to the original prognosis.
His mother speaks with parents of young CF patients, sends them photos of her robust son, to give them hope.
But Jeremy was 24 before he could begin to talk to others about cystic fibrosis. “It’s still emotional for me,” he said, “because it still isn’t over. We live on the edge of a knife.”
He makes that clear with one of his sculptures, a chain wrapped around a large rock.
“Sometimes my ribs feel like a cage,” he said. “Sometimes they feel like they’re protecting me, like your family.”