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Fall 2011

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One Artist’s Creative Canvas of Recovery

Story By Lisa Pogue, Paintings by Kathi Peters

It’s been five years since Kathi Peters, 64, stepped out of the car at her brother’s 70th birthday party in New Hampshire to a warm reception of hugs and smiles, and suddenly couldn’t feel her right arm or hand.

“I felt a bit weird, but started to talk with one of my sisters-in-law. She was talking to me but I couldn’t understand what she was saying,”  Peters recalls.  “Her words sounded like dogs talking to me…grrrararaaaaah. I thought something was wrong with her!”

Family members called 9-1-1 and Peters was taken to a nearby hospital and then transported to a facility in Portland, Maine, closer to her family’s small horse farm in rural Morrill. The 59-year-old artist had suffered an ischemic stroke that left her unable to speak or use the right side of her body.

Peters describes the days following her stroke as surreal and full of doctors, tests and needles. She slept a lot and was told that, because of her aphasia, she wouldn’t be able to speak well or find words easily.

“I wondered what was going to happen to our horses, our farm, our life. But the biggest question on my mind was could I still draw? Paint?” she says. After multiple attempts at asking her nurse and husband for a pencil and paper, they finally figured out what she was asking for and handed her the requested materials. Peters first drew an eye, then a horse’s head, then a glass. Ecstatic inside, she felt a sense of relief.

“I knew then that life was good,”  says Peters.  “I could still draw. And if I could draw, I could paint. Life would go on. I could do this.”

An Artful Upbringing

The youngest of five children, Peters grew up on a New Hampshire farm with horses, dogs, cats and other wildlife. When she was 9 her father took a job in Italy. Attending an International School in Milan, Peters embraced the abundance of art that surrounded her daily,  “I grew up knowing that somehow art would be a big part of my life.” 

Peters was juried into the Rome Academy of Fine Art at age 17—the youngest in her class. She met her husband, Les, who was a singer in a rock band in Rome; they married and had their first son. Les traveled with his band and Peters wrote and illustrated fashion articles for an American newspaper, enjoying a life full of art, music and literary influence.

Expecting their second child, the couple decided to move back to the U.S. and settled in Maine where their sons would grow up with plenty of room to run, and where they were eventually able to buy a farm and raise their own cows, sheep, chickens and horses.

Healing at Home

After her release from the hospital, doctors urged her to go to a rehabilitation facility, but Peters’ diehard passion for art and her lifelong devotion to nature and horses made her envision a different kind of recovery. She craved quiet and fresh air and convinced her therapists that her home was the best place to heal.

Les had been taking care of the farm, handling duties that were typically a part of Peters’ daily routine. A friend had moved in to help out. The house buzzed with therapists and homecare nurses. Eventually her occupational therapist began walking her down to the barn to see her horses. Peters helped clean the stalls, replacing her cane with a manure fork, and gained strength in her right arm and shoulder. She slowly took over the farm chores; her legs got stronger, her balance returned. She let her physical therapist go and stall cleaning became her therapy 
of choice.

“My OT told me my work was to breathe in the breath of the horses and to run my right hand over their bodies to feel their bones, their mane, their muscle,”  Peters recalls.  “I, who had never been afraid of horses, was now a bit afraid of them. It was as if I had lost a bit of Kathi, the horse hugger.”

Peters regained full use of her right hand and arm and filled her days with chores, gardening and painting—the things that have helped her forget about the lingering nerve pain, which still continues today. Her occupational therapist suggested she create a blog, and journal online to help strengthen her mind and work out some of the hiccups that came with trying to find the right words—something that had always come naturally to the veteran journalist and poet.

Finding a Voice

In the five-year journey since her stroke, Peters says she’s used her blog to regain writing and spelling skills. Rather than focusing on her stroke, the blog site reveals her passion for art and animals. Painting has become a major factor in the healing process. Her artwork has been published in numerous national magazines, including  “Equine Images,”  “Riding Magazine” and  “The Country and Abroad.”

Peters’ eye for design and composition earned her spots in a juried art show and museum invitational exhibits. A gallery in Lexington, Ky., celebrated one of her equine-inspired collections in a one-person show called  “Finding My Voice,”  in which Peters’ paintings metaphorically chronicled her journey back from stroke.

“I traveled with my husband to the show’s opening,”  Peters says.  “It was a wonderful night with people talking to me about stroke and the stories my paintings told.”  She donated a portion of the sales from that show to National Stroke Association in hopes of raising awareness about early signs and stroke prevention.

Today, Peters is known in artistic circles as a talented American contemporary realist, impressing fans with her use of contrasts and emotion. She recently entered an annual juried exhibit held by the National Society of Painters in Casein and Acrylic. A long-standing member, Peters is very excited to announce that her work has been accepted and will be hanging at the famous historic Salmagundi Club in New York City.

As for what’s next, Peters is starting to experiment with plein air (outdoor) painting and looking at new ways to approach her subjects.  “I still have lots of things in my  ‘bucket’ that need doing,”  says Peters.

“I draw, I paint and I muck stalls. That’s my day,”  Peters proclaims on her website.  “I am a professional artist with three horses, a dog and a cat and a husband ... in that order. And I have been blessed.”

Lisa Pogue is a freelance writer for numerous publications. She is grateful to have the opportunity to help Kathi Peters tell her story and hopefully to inspire others to follow in Peters’ creative path to recovery.

For more information about Kathi Peters and her art, visit kathipeters.com.

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