How Nell Blaine survived polio and reclaimed her painting career

At age 37, a social worker told Nell Blaine (BFA ’42) that she would never paint again. Blaine had spent the last five months in an iron lung, confident that she could overcome polio. She told the social worker to get out.

Blaine contracted polio in 1959 while spending a summer in Greece. She painted in a three-hundred-year-old house on the island of Mykonos, where she was inspired by the surrounding town and the dazzling light. It was a prolific period for her, until the onset of a terrible fatigue.

“I thought it was psychological,” said Blaine. “I decided to hire a boat and go to a little island to try to break it. As I jumped off the boat my legs gave way.”

Three doctors assessed her, and diagnosed the young painter with bulbospinal polio—a combination of muscle weakness and spinal paralysis. She was rushed to a hospital in Athens, where she required an iron lung to breathe.

Fortunately, Blaine wasn’t alone. Friends from New York stayed alongside her and wrote letters in her stead. 79 artists donated to a benefit exhibition that was covered in the Village Voice, the New York Times and Art News.

In Richmond, her mother Dora received a telegram: “Condition worse. Her recovery is questionable. Prognosis poor.” This did nothing to quell the fear of an already paranoid parent.

Dora always thought Nell was a step away from disaster. Nell was born in 1922, feeble and cross-eyed. Surgery later corrected her vision, but as a little girl, she had to defend herself against schoolyard bullies with her fists.

Now, as she was five thousand miles away from her mother, disaster had finally struck.

“I was almost completely paralyzed for several months,” Blaine recalled. “I could move one hand and one lower arm a bit; my head a little bit. But otherwise nothing.”

She was eventually flown to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where she began to recover. Eventually, she left the iron lung.

Nell Blaine, “Round Table & Easel” (1989). Courtesy of Reynolds Gallery.

When Blaine was told that she could no longer paint, she set out to defy the odds. She learned to draw again with a marker, and taught herself to paint with her left hand. But it was a tempestuous process, with Blaine cursing and throwing things around the hospital room in frustration.

It was the third time that she had been so challenged as an artist. At 16, she enrolled in the School of Art at Richmond Professional Institute, where Theresa Pollak sought to push her beyond the rigid realist style. And at 20, she began studying at Hans Hoffman’s famous New York school, where her peers offered brutal critiques.

This time, it was Blaine against herself. Surgery enabled her to grip a pen with her right hand, but she needed both hands to paint. Yet the looser brushstrokes suited her well, as she was deeply influenced by the abstract simplicity of Piet Mondrian.

In 1960, Blaine finally returned to her apartment. She was once an athletic painter, who circled around canvases as she worked. Now she was confined to a wheelchair.

Gazing out the window, as she did in Mykonos, she painted in watercolors a wintry Hudson River.

“What I did before my illness tended to have the feeling of over-expenditure of energy,” she said. “What I did afterward represents me myself, free and detached.”

2018 marks 90 years of creative daring at VCU School of the Arts. To mark this occasion, VCUarts is spending this school year reflecting on our shared history and envisioning how we can continue to pave the way for creative practice in the 21st century and beyond. Visit the VCUarts 90th Anniversary website to learn more about the many stories that have shaped our school, and to share memories of your own.

Lead image: Nell Blaine, “Girl at Round Table” (n.d.). Courtesy of Reynolds Gallery. Learn more about Nell Blaine.

Date:

January 30, 2019