Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Art has many powers, giving physical form to emotions, cultures and perception. For a Roseville, Minn., man, art reclaims worlds lost to him when a car accident permanently changed his view of the world.
"Art re-creates in my mind what the world looked like before," said Jon Leverentz, 55, a prolific painter who is legally blind. "I do art the way I remember things."
Leverentz has been painting since he was 11, and as an adult, he has completed a couple hundred paintings, some of which have toured in national exhibits. He is one of the founders of Anodyne Artist Company in St. Paul, where artists with varying degrees of disabilities work side by side with able-bodied artists.
But he suspects he never would have chosen a life in art had fate not intervened. On a rainy June night in 1969, Leverentz rolled his car at a turn on a muddy road near Perham, Minn. He was only going 30 mph. He was 18.
His injuries and complications - his temperature spiked to 107.7 degrees - left him with permanent brain stem damage. Doctors thought he would be consigned to a persistent vegetative state, but Leverentz beat the odds and became, his doctors said, one of two Americans who have recovered from such extensive damage.
He speaks with difficulty and is paralyzed on his left side. He can walk a few steps with help but relies on a wheelchair. He has severe sight problems: double vision, poor depth perception and shaky images. His world is always moving.
An emphasis on visual mediums seems counterintuitive, but art had always been a staple in his life, and it didn't fail him. The accident narrowed his scope; art opened it up again.
"After the accident, I looked at what I was qualified to do," he said. "There was nothing, so I decided to focus on my art."
In 1976, he took an art class at Augsburg College, where he worked with Norman Holen, a professor who assisted physically challenged students, fitting them with tools and splints that helped them use whatever capabilities they had.
For Leverentz, he made a desk-mounted device that lets him open paint tubes with one hand. But the student had to conquer the larger problems on his own.
Every brush stroke pits perception against artistic intent. In a biographical sketch for his exhibits, he wrote that it's hard to get his pen into an ink bottle. "But I just think hard about where the middle of my two views are and then I make it!"
He wears thick glasses, but often removes them while working to improve his close-up vision.
Holen worked with Leverentz for more than 25 years, in class and later in weekly meetings, until he retired three years ago. Now they get together as friends.
"It's just amazing the life he's had and the problems that have persisted over the years," Holen said. "And yet he just keeps on painting."
Friends note Leverentz's wit and fierce determination for autonomy, in work and in life. Holen never put a drop of paint on a canvas for him, and he recalled when, too impatient to wait for help getting up a flight of stairs, Leverentz folded up his chair and carried it himself, one step at a time.
Leverentz turns his visual restrictions into a creative force by painting expressionistic images that question realism. One of his early pieces invites people to see the world as he does. On the canvas is a piece of art, accompanied by a twin image, which in turn is shadowed by shaky clones.
His limited depth perception - the sidewalk and street look the same to him - lend his paintings an abstract quality. Edges are sharply defined.
"Realism is hard to attain when you don't have full control of your hand," Holen said. "Expressionism allowed him to be somewhat abstract in his shapes and color. It gave his artwork a certain interest and impact as a result."
Life, Leverentz said, is 95 percent art. He often works at a feverish pitch, sometimes working around the clock. In preparation for a one-man show in 1994, he finished 40 paintings in three years, "and not one was a failure," Holen said.
"You'd never look at them and say `this person is handicapped,'" he said.
Leverentz is always working on two pieces at a time - one at Anodyne's studio and one at home - and sometimes more. He experiments with mediums and is now exploring papier-mche.
"I've been told to stick to one thing," he said, "and it makes sense, but I get bored. I change what I do a lot."
When not painting, he tours galleries and attends openings. At Anodyne, he acts as a sounding board for how to offer special services, such as adult day care, in a way that offers maximum artistic freedom.
His art dots the studio's exhibition space. Other artists built a wall mural around a work titled "Millennium," which can be yours for $5,000. Leverentz is not known for philosophizing about art. He'd rather be painting. But you often can tell by the price how much a piece means to him, Pendergast said.
"He doesn't do art to support himself," she said. "He does art because he has something to say that people need to hear."
(c) 2005, St. Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.