BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Sitting in a wheelchair, Lesamarie Hacker places a paintbrush between her right foot's big toe and the one alongside it, dips it into some green acrylic paint and carefully moves it over a blank white canvas on the floor.
During the past five months, the petite 45-year-old has painted more than 50 works — many of which have personal or religious themes. The reason for her curious technique? She's suffered four mini-strokes over the past four years, depleting the dexterity in her arms and hands.
More than a dozen of her paintings are displayed in her room at the Golden Living Center in Bloomington, where she's been receiving rehabilitation therapy since June 27. There's a black cross wreathed by a blood-stained crown of thorns, a black hand and white hand clasped together and a silhouette of a woman standing alongside her wheelchair with upraised arms.
"That's going to be me someday," says Hacker, her sky-blue eyes sparkling like diamonds. "I don't plan on staying in this wheelchair."
But Hacker, whose friends call her "Little Bit" because she stands only 5 feet tall in stockings, has not always had such a bright outlook. After extremely high blood pressure caused her to suffer two small strokes in 2009, plus two more in February and March of this year, she fell into a funk.
Her speech was so slurred that she was unable to communicate, and her left leg and arm were virtually useless. She could move her right arm and hand, but they jerked spasmodically and shook with tremors. Others had to feed her, bathe her and change her clothes.
"I was being a real horse's butt because I didn't want to be in a nursing home, and I didn't like having to depend on others. I'm normally a real happy and positive person, but at that time I didn't want to interact with anyone," Hacker told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/17HfCL6 ).
One day Deloris Schneider, a Meadowood art therapist, walked into her room carrying an assortment of acrylic paints and a brush — suggesting she place the brush in her teeth and paint a picture expressing her feelings.
"Here was this beautiful young woman facing some serious challenges, and she was scared and sad and mad," Schneider said. "I didn't have any words for her. All I could do was give her those art supplies."
Hacker did not exactly gush with gratitude.
"I threw the paint bottles on the floor," she said.
That was on a Friday. When Schneider came to work Monday morning, Hacker showed her a painting she'd completed that weekend. It depicted a large red heart that was broken in two. In one corner was the image of a young woman with her head bowed in prayer. In the other corner were these words: "I'm going to be OK."
That picture opened an emotional spigot, out of which flowed a river of unforeseen artistic ability.
"I don't know where it came from," Hacker said. "Before I had my strokes, I couldn't even draw stick figures."
After painting a few pictures with a mouth-held brush, Hacker began using her right foot instead. Friends, family and staff members at Meadowood and the Golden Living Center keep her constantly supplied with paint, brushes and canvasses.
Last week, Hacker phoned Schneider at Meadowood and asked, "Do you realize what you did for me?"
"Honey, I didn't do anything," Schneider said. "You did."
"But I never would have started painting without you suggesting it," said Hacker, now crying into the phone. "You opened the door."
Hacker said she finds painting therapeutic, and loves giving away her finished pieces to fellow residents, nurses aides and rehab therapists.
Last week, she presented Greg Limeberry, Golden Living's administrator, with a painting that showed two hands reaching out to others in a sea of water. On the back she wrote, "Reaching out in a sea of life — young and old."
"Painting makes me feel worthwhile, because it's something I can do that makes people happy," she said. "It helps me emotionally and mentally, and that in turn helps me physically."
Hacker said two other things help her remain upbeat — her faith and her sense of humor. Recently she and her significant other, Terry Hogue, were in a restaurant. Hacker was holding a muffin in her hand when a look of puzzlement swept over her face.
"What's this?" she asked Hogue.
"It's a muffin," he said.
"No, I mean this," she said.
"That's your hand," he said, causing them both to convulse with laughter.
Hacker said when she leaves the Golden Living Center in two weeks, she hopes to enter an intensive rehab program in an out-of-town hospital.
"I want to reach my full potential, whatever that is," she said.
She draws inspiration from her 25-year-old daughter, Ashley Marie Quillen, who was a quadriplegic for nine months in 2011 due to the effects of a tumor, but is now fully recovered and working full-time.
Hacker said when she finally goes home, she'll feel complete.
"Terry will be there, and he's my rock," she said. "And my two daughters and my three grandbabies will be in and out of the house."
Hacker worked many years as a certified nurse assistant and has a master's degree in neuro-nursing. But after returning home, she plans to seek a job in bereavement and family counseling, a field in which she holds a bachelor's degree.
Hacker's favorite painting shows a young man wearing a cowboy hat, leaning against a tree on a river bank and holding a fishing pole. She painted it in memory of her only son, Jared Quillen, who died in 2004 — just two weeks shy of his 17th birthday — when he went into the water to retrieve a lost bobber and drowned.
"Not a single day passes that I don't think about him and weep that he's no longer here," she said. Painting that picture helped bring some healing to her heart, but she wanted to do something more to honor her son. So she offered herself up as a human canvas.
Covering her entire upper back are two expansive tattoos. One shows Jared's favorite cowboy hat, perched atop a small wooden cross. The other shows Jesus engulfing Jared in an embrace.
Lesamarie Hacker has more than 40 of her paintings stored in a shed behind her daughter Ashley's house.
The owner of a small gallery wants to offer two dozen of them for sale at the Brown County Fall Festival. She will then give all money from those sales to Hacker to use to buy therapy equipment, install grab bars and build a second wheelchair ramp at her home.
Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com