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Painting After Polio

After I mentioned to someone that I was writing a biography of a leading painter who contracted a severe form of polio but taught herself how to cope with her disability, he said, "So she painted with her feet, right?"


It seems that people have a hard time coupling excellence in art and disability without imagining some sort of freakish practice that we must look upon kindly because This Is The Best They Can Do.


The wonderful and amazing thing about Nell Blaine—whose polio attack came at age 37, during what appeared to be the peak of her career—is that the work she made afterward is far superior to the earlier paintings.


Nell, who was born in 1922 in Richmond, Virginia, and escaped to New York at age 20, was initially in thrall to the rigorous abstraction of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. But her fascination with the objects of the real world kept breaking through. For example, in Lester Leaps (1944–45), a tribute to the jazz musician Lester Young, a shape at the upper right looks unmistakably like a baton in the hand of a bandmaster. Then, on a trip to Europe in 1950, Nell discovered a new freedom in sketching landscapes in Paris and Rome.


Despite the dominance of Abstract Expressionism in New York in the 1950s, she realized that her heart was in a different kind of painting: landscapes and interiors. But first she had to figure out how to achieve a viable personal style. In many of her works from the late fifties, brushstrokes have a tentative, unresolved look, as if she was still persuading herself of the value of representational art. Even so, the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased one of her paintings, Harbor and Green Cloth II (1958) in 1959.


That was the year Nell had made enough money from her graphic design work—side jobs that she needed to earn a living—to fund a trip to Greece. She had heard that government-run studios on the island of Mykonos rented for a pittance. They did, but hers was very cold and lonely. Never at a loss for making friends, she soon found more congenial lodgings with two gay Americans, where she could paint the majestic view from the windows of her room.


In letters to fellow painter Jane Freilicher, she described her island sojourn in glowing terms. But she had begun to feel strangely weak. After a collapse, her worried friends called a local doctor, who diagnosed the flu. Fortunately, they also called a visiting German doctor, who realized that Nell had actually contracted the most severe type of polio. Near death, she was airlifted to a New York hospital, where she spent months in an iron lung. While some people stricken with polio were left with no more than a limp, Nell became paraplegic.


Told that she could never paint again, she characteristically rebelled. During the long months of her rehabilitation, Nell decided to invest the energy she would have needed to learn how to walk into redeveloping her painting skills. Her first postpolio artwork was a shaky drawing of flowers, dedicated to her nurse, with whom she had fallen in love. (Bisexual in her pre-polio life, she would rely for the rest of her life on the intimacy and all-encompassing care of the two women with whom she had successive relationships.)


In the years that followed, she trained herself to use her left arm for oil painting and her right arm for watercolor. Although Nell could no longer work on a large scale or finesse tiny details, she developed a coloristically rich, rhythmically vibrant style that gave landscapes and still lifes a unique beauty and visual intensity. Her watercolors, in particular, would rank with the greatest American masters of the medium.


During the remainder of Nell's life, her paintings were shown in leading galleries and reviewed with the encomiums reserved for outstanding work. A facsimile of her sketchbook, published in 1986, contained a tribute by her longtime friend, the poet John Ashbery. He praised "the sensuality . . . backed up by a temperament that is crisp and astringent, which is as it should be, since even at its most poetic, nature doesn't kid around."


© Cathy Curtis 2019

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