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After stroke steals language, an artist Is born

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In Harry Teague's paintings, people take wing by hitching a ride on birds --- that is, when they're not flying on their own powers. They dive off dangerously tall cliffs into impossibly small ponds. Strapped to the outside of rockets, they blaze off into outer space.

In other words, they do all sorts of miraculous stuff that the fragile yet determined man who brings these scenarios to life with acrylic paint on posterboard can only imagine. But, oh, what a fertile imagination Harry Teague has --- not to mention a remarkable, and utterly instinctive, sense of color, composition and patterning.

Less than a decade after the dull recovery from debilitating strokes and other health setbacks led him to pick up a paintbrush for the first time, Teague, 60, is establishing a name for himself in the woolly world of folk art.

During this weekend's 12th annual Folk Fest at the North Atlanta Trade Center in Gwinnett County, collectors will search out Crazy Dog Art Gallery's booth to see the Cartersville artist's latest creations. Even visitors who don't know Teague's name, or his brave story, will be drawn by the appealing color juxtapositions in his works --- sunflower golds, Caribbean blues, piquant purples and groovy greens.

The arena of folk art is populated more by pretenders than contenders, but many believe Teague is the real thing. The House of Blues bought 200 of his pieces in the late '90s. And last year, St. Mary's Health Care in Athens purchased 13 to display in its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit; Radford University in Virginia bought five.

"Harry has a unique style, and the subjects are cathartically about memories, longings, what life has taken away," says Richard J. Bay, Radford's curator of art education and community outreach. "Some therapist probably could have taught him to do [formulaic] landscapes, but what Harry did was take the road less traveled, and he is learning as he creates about himself and his vision of the world."

While Teague's work is not yet included in a major museum collection or chronicled in a prominent genre publication like Raw Vision, folk art galleries from Hilton Head Island, S.C., to Seattle sell his pieces.

Only 10 years ago, Teague didn't even know what "folk art" meant. All that he and his wife, Diannia, knew was that he was bored out of his gourd.

Teague had suffered two strokes in September 1990, when he was a 46-year-old businessman developing a subdivision outside Gatlinburg, Tenn. A heart attack, and triple-bypass surgery, followed six months later. Brain damage left him with right-side paralysis, partial vision loss and severe aphasia (an inability to articulate words his brain knows).

A classic type A personality, with high blood pressure and a three-packs-of-Winstons-a-day habit to prove it before his strokes, Teague spent three years being driven to Knoxville by Diannia for rehabilitation therapy. He regained the ability to walk and some speech, but he could no longer read, write or resume his go-go-go life.

In 1994, the couple, who do not have children, moved back to their native Cartersville, where they could be closer to extended family. The next summer, at a loss for what to do to keep her husband occupied, Diannia took Harry shopping for painting supplies at a Michael's crafts store. After an hour of indecision in the face of so many unfamiliar choices, a stranger took mercy and offered help.

Charlene Ediger, a painter and art teacher from Canton, suggested they avoid oils and instead use acrylics, which would be easier to handle for Teague, a left-hander whose left side was not affected by the strokes. She helped them pick brushes and other supplies, and even said she'd visit and show him how to use the materials.

While waiting a few weeks for that meeting, Teague warmed up by wearing out a couple of watercolor kits. When Ediger brought over her acrylics, palette and brushes for the informal demonstration, she found him raring to go.

"He was watching me, and said, 'OK, give me the brush. . . . I can do this,' " Ediger recalls. "I must have gone out a few days later to see what he'd done, and I was just astounded. He'd just taken off."

Teague wasn't instantly the artist of the sophisticated compositions he turns out today, but it was clear he had something. His first piece was a hummingbird, and other simple depictions quickly followed. It wasn't long before his skill level and imagination took an interesting leap.

"He did a purple barn, and I said, 'I don't know about that color,' " Diannia remembers. "I told Charlene, and she said, 'Leave Harry alone!' which we laugh about all the time now."

Teague has painted 1,300 infinitely detailed pieces in just under a decade, most of them 30 by 19 inches, and sold at annual events like Folk Fest or the Decatur Arts Festival, where the wife who was originally opposed to purple barns dutifully sets up her husband's booth.

The sun looms large in many of Teague's compositions --- perhaps a symbol of the rays of hope he's clung to --- and even in their conception.

Most of the ideas for the paintings are hatched during hour-or-two sessions when Harry sits out front of their pin-neat brick house in a Cartersville subdivision, soaking up soothing rays near a banner for their beloved New York Yankees.

What he's thinking of, even Diannia is never sure. But when his patio-chair pondering is done, Harry usually knows exactly what his next painting will look like. Unlike many artists, he doesn't sketch anything first. The lines, the colors, the full composition are already painted in his mind.

"Just wait and see," he answers, when his curious wife asks where he's heading with a painting, which typically takes a few days to finish.

"It's just unbelievable," Ediger observes. "There's something in his vision, in his brain, that we just don't know about. It's something to do with the stroke, I'm sure."

In a recent e-mail to Teague, Florida folk artist Will Luck praised his friend's "stream of consciousness" approach to his subject matter. "It allows for those spontaneous gestures and moods to become a type of poetry," Luck wrote. "Each painting is a visual poem, a poem [that] makes me want to take my hat off in respect and awe."

One sunny August morning, the poet behind the pictures finds himself frequently at a loss for words --- excited, maybe a little overexcited, by having a first-time guest over who wants to gab about his art. Sitting in the dining room that doubles as Teague's studio, where brushes and 65 tubes of different hues are lined up atop the color-splashed plastic tablecloth, he struggles to complete a sentence.

"Cartersville, Georgia, and . . . me . . . ," he starts and pauses, before putting his hand on his brow. He darts his gray eyes at Diannia, hoping she'll finish the thought, as she's done millions of times, but she's lost, too. He repeats the phrase, only to hit the same roadblock, and then spins his left hand as if trying to grab the evasive words out of the air.

The futility of it all hangs there for only a few moments. Soon Teague is laughing and slapping his leg as he shows his visitor fanciful paintings like "Travel Tour," depicting tourists riding purple camels across the foreground as violet birds dart in the opposite direction past golden pyramids.

"Beautiful work," he says, repeating the phrase he'd used to describe Matisse paintings in a favorite book given to him by Ediger --- and who could argue on either count?

Teague's wife of 41 years says she's not surprised about his late-blooming art instincts, even though he never had any particular interest in that kind of expression before his strokes.

"In his business endeavors he was always creating a new business or idea, and they came really fast," Diannia says. "Harry enjoyed new challenges, and I think he thinks of each of his paintings as a new beginning."

New beginnings, made possible only with the help of a longtime partner. In Gatlinburg, before his strokes, Harry and Diannia ran two restaurants, a gift shop and a smokehouse. The work has changed with the circumstances, but they're still in it together.

"Harry couldn't do what he does without Diannia," Atlanta painter Mary Zeman notes. "And Diannia is so proud of Harry, you can see it in everything she does.

"Diannia is such a small lady, but she gets a lot done --- working fulltime [as a telemarketer] out of the house, doing art shows and being there for Harry," Zeman adds. "She does it gracefully. That's what I see when I see them together: grace."

Not long ago, Diannia asked Harry what he would do if he could do whatever he wanted. Painting, he responded. "I said no, I mean if you did not have the disabilities of your stroke," Diannia recalls. "He said, 'Painting. I love it and wish I had done it from the start.' "

OK, some of that retelling was Diannia filling in the blanks, she acknowledges.

"Harry can't say all those words," she says. "But those are partly his words and all of his meaning."

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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