Inspirational/Human interest: Art and optimism

Published in the Easton Journal (MA), Dec. 2004:

Art and optimism

By Lori Hein/ Correspondent
Friday, December 10, 2004

It was the afternoon of game three of the 100th World Series, and the Red Sox would face the St. Louis Cardinals in a few hours. Easton's Bob Coe was dressed for his interview in a Red Sox jacket, and his dog sported a bright red Sox t-shirt. Positive, optimistic members of the Red Sox nation.

Positive attitudes and optimism are part of the fabric of Coe family life, and 28-year-old Coe, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), has so much of both that he uses art canvases to catch what spills over.

This year, his painting Sun Plasma became part of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) Art Collection. The work, a beautiful burst of blue, black and yellow, is on permanent display at MDA national headquarters in Tucson, Arizona.

Founded in 1992, the MDA Art Collection highlights the achievements of artists with disabilities and shows that creativity transcends physical barriers. More than 1.6 million people have viewed the collection, which travels periodically to host locations beyond Tucson. Pieces from the collection have been exhibited in major museums and galleries nationwide.

Coe attended the Massachusetts Hospital School for the physically challenged until he was 22. He played football and motor soccer in his wheelchair. He taught himself to play the dulcimer. And he discovered art.

" I had a great art teacher," he said. "She really made you like it."

But it wasn't until he was about 25 that Coe began painting regularly.

" About three years ago," he recalled, "I was sick a lot during the winter. I don't like to sit still. I looked around my room and said, 'I want to do something different in here. I want to have the whole room filled with Caribbean colors to brighten it up for the winter.' "

So he started painting.

DMD is a genetic, degenerative muscular disease that primarily affects boys. Diagnosed at age 5 and able to walk with braces until 14, Coe now has use of only his head and right thumb, which he uses to drive his microchip-controlled wheelchair. Most artists have an idea, then pick up a brush and put paint to canvas. When Coe has an idea, he has to figure out how to get the paint to the canvas (or Plexiglas or vinyl tablecloth).

"Bobby improvises so much," his mother, Paula said. Sometimes he holds the brush in his teeth. Sometimes he lets his chair do the painting, rolling his tires through paint and approaching the canvas, spread flat on his driveway. "I drive my wheels over it and design a painting through the tires," he said. Sometimes his personal care assistants hold the canvas and apply the paint as Coe directs.

Of the muse that inspires him, Coe said, "I'll either have a painting where the whole image will pop up in my head all at once, sometimes in the middle of the night, or sometimes I sit and think about it for a while. You just really have to let yourself go. You go on a feeling. Sometimes I'll paint every day for a couple weeks in a row, and sometimes I'll paint once every three weeks or so."

It takes Coe five to six hours to complete a painting, and he works perhaps 10 minutes at a time. "I have to break it up," he said. "It takes me longer now to finish one."

Much of Coe's day revolves around keeping his lungs clear and checking that his heart isn't racing. His wheelchair holds machines that help him breathe. "Every day there are a lot of treatments," he said. His team of some 12 personal care assistants rotates shifts and spends about 10 hours a day with him. "You have to be proactive with your treatments and take care of yourself. Then, you can help other people," Coe said. And when he's not painting or tending to his treatments, Coe helps other people.

Since 1998, he's been a student liaison in the Massachusetts Hospital School performing arts program, helping physically challenged kids and young adults feel their worth and accomplish things they thought impossible. He coaches the students in music, dance and drama. "I guide them into it," said Coe.

Each spring, the students put on a musical that also serves as a fund-raiser. The show raises money for the Canton school, but it also raises the confidence and self-esteem of the young performers, and Coe's guidance and inspiration play a key role.

"The thing is, (the kids) see him. He's a role model," Paula said. "(The Massachusetts Hospital School) wanted him because they wanted someone to show these kids what's possible. He never had any barriers. He wouldn't let anything stop him. The younger kids needed him."

For three years, Coe's been a volunteer greeter at Caritas Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton. He works at the front desk, talking with patients and visitors and helping them find their way around the hospital.

And he goes to college and runs a business. Coe's enrolled in Massasoit Community College's art program, "to enhance my art skills," he said. He's learning strategies that will help him market his work. "I'm going there to be an exhibition artist," he said.

Coe has begun marketing his work through Creative Endeavors, a business he runs with his girlfriend, Nicole Warren. Coe and Warren met while students at Massachusetts Hospital School. They've been together for five years and started Creative Endeavors a year ago. They sell original works and copies of their art made into greeting cards, plaques, t-shirts and other items.

Coe noted that many of his favorite works have already found new homes. He gives paintings - "the real nice ones" - to family members. "And Nicole has two or three."

To contact Creative Endeavors, call Coe at 508-238-4125. Locally, Sara Petipas' On The Cusp Gallery has carried the couple's greeting cards. Coe read about the gallery in an Easton Journal article and contacted Petipas. "It was very generous of her," said Coe, of Petipas' support.

In September, Coe was a guest on WCVB-TV's broadcast of the 2004 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. Natalie Jacobson asked about his inventive nature and artistic talent. He responded with characteristic optimism: "Sometimes with MD, you're not that strong physically, so you want to be strong in other ways... Sometimes, when you can't do something, you have to figure out a new way to do it... I think of having MD as a positive thing because if I didn't have it, I might not have been as creative. Because I have it, it's actually a blessing."

If there's a guy in this world who sees the glass half full, it's Bob Coe.

"He fights the battle every day," said Paula. "He's the most positive person in the world."

Many of Coe's paintings hang on the walls of his room. Some pieces were covered by full-page newspaper clippings showing jubilant Red Sox trouncing Yankees and Cardinals. Priorities.

A red and black abstract full of action and form seemed to leap off the wall. "I had a great time making that one," said Coe. Rain Splash, a large blue, green and aqua work, is his personal favorite, and he related its genesis: "It was on a rainy day, and it was to give the impression that, as soon as the raindrop hit, it splashed... "

Muscular dystrophy is not for the weak. And there's no stronger advocate for living a rich, full life with MD than Coe. " (MD) sort of forced me to come up with new ways of doing things, " he said. "There's no sense in giving up. Maybe things will be a little harder, but you have to keep trying new things and not sitting around feeling bad for yourself. That's a waste of time. I always think of the positive."