Northwest Arkansas Times: Jan. 4, 2009
Chance No. 2: Fayetteville painter finds rebirth, new purpose through his artwork
Every paining has a story, especially if it is produced from the many brushes of David Arnold. During his tenure as a professional artist, Arnold has completed about 120 paintings, about half of which have been sold. Every sale is accompanied by a handwritten note and a description of what is happening on the canvas.
“It’s like it all comes together when I paint it,” Arnold says. “This story is telling itself to me and I share it.”
Yet the story he is likely less to share is his own: a man who has found a new way of life after his own canvas contained too many dark hues for his liking.
Given Arnold’s prolific success as an artist with his work appearing in galleries dotting the country, it might be hard to fathom that the guy with the following white hair has only been in front of an easel for a little more than two years—or that he has a rare crippling disease by the name of post-polio syndrome.
An unknown pain
Like his brush strokes, Arnold’s steps are small and deliberate, assisted with a cane. He makes his way through the former residence of his famous father-in-law, former University of Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles. He has a motorized wheelchair, but claims that the apparatus is “just so depersonalizing and it’s hard to get around with it.”
Every step he takes drains him a little more. His muscles cramp, twitch and spasm with horrid clockwork. For Arnold, energy has become a precious commodity every since he was stricken with the syndrome in his late 30s. Unknown at the time, the condition is caused by the death of individual nerve terminals that control basic motor skills as part of the aftermath of the initial polio attack.
“Fatigue drives my life,” Arnold says. “If I get up in the morning, take a shower, get dressed, go to the breakfast table, I fire my muscles the same amounts of time as you do running a marathon.”
The 60-year-old Arnold contracted polio at the age of 11 months in his native Blytheville. For a period of five months, he was paralyzed. With his temperature reaching up to 106 degrees, he was given tepid baths. His hands, arms and legs were exercised enough to maintain muscle tone to allow the degenerative nerves the opportunity for new growth. Eventually he was able to walk again using mostly the sides of his feet. Besides another brief relapse when he was 10, the consensus was that Arnold was cured.
Never one to shy away from hard work and blessed with intelligence that allowed him to skip his senior year of high school and, right after turning 17, pursue a degree in philosophy at Arkansas State University, Arnold went on to become an executive in the construction and material manufacturing industries.
When the fatigue and the pain first set in, Arnold went to a variety of doctors. All of them, though, managed to misdiagnose his symptoms. Some doctors said he had fibromyalgia and rheumatory arthritis, two maladies associated with widespread pain. They encouraged him to work out as much as possible. He became an avid weight lifter. Little did he know that his exercising practices were only worsening his condition.
As luck would have it, Arnold finally was able to get a correct diagnosis in 1999 after seeing Dr. Carlos Valbona, a renowned expert on the syndrome, at the Texas Institute for Research & Rehabilitation in the Houston Medical Center. Valbona told Arnold that he was operating under a use-it-and-lose-it policy when it came to the nerves that let him function. The same medical staff said he would only be confined to a wheelchair in five years.”
“I have a finite number of nerve fibers left for the nerves,” Arnold says. “They said ‘Every time you use one, that’s one less. Make sure you’re doing things that matter.”
Arnold moved with his wife from Houston to Fayetteville in April 2001 so that he and his wife, Betsy, could provide full-time help to her mother, Barbara, who was going through the perils of Alzheimer’s disease before passing away in October 2004.
“My mother, if she were alive, would have loved this. She loved art. She would have thought this was fun,” Betsy says later.
In November 2001, David Arnold had to quit his job. The symptoms had become too much to allow him to function in the 9-to-5 world.
“I had defined myself as an executive and weightlifter and all of these things, suddenly they’re all gone,” he says. “So here I am. Instead of making 10 decisions a minute and telling people what to do and running things and then going and working out like a fiend, I’m sitting and watching television.”
A fresh canvas
The rainbow after the storm started with a Father’s Day gift in 2006. Betsy Arnold and the rest of their family of five children wanted to find an outlet that could give her husband some sense of joy, some sense of belonging. That gift was a collection of acrylic paints, canvases and brushes.
Betsy remembered walking into her husband’s office several years before and seeing the ornate doodling of people he would create on his desk calendar while on the phone.
In 2004, David Arnold had taken it upon himself to reignite a former fascination of drawing by picking up a how-to-draw book. He started by drawing the characters from one of his favorite TV shows, “Law & Order.” He recalled the wisdom of his older brother, Joe, who is an accomplished artist in his own right: “Anyone who is smart can draw.” Before long, a catalog of detailed sketches began to accumulate in spite of his state of mind,.
“He was very depressed,” Betsy Arnold says. “It was just part of the illness when you from everybody needs you to nobody needs you anymore. And I kept thinking ‘What could he do? What could he do?’”
“It was his idea to draw and I said ‘If you can draw like that, you can paint.’”
Her husband did not visualize the same transition at first. The art materials collected dust until two months later in August.
“They wanted me to start painting and I wasn’t very gracious about it and one day I realized ‘How ungrateful can you be? They’ve given you this nice stuff and you haven’t even picked it up? Well I picked it up and I’ve barely been able to put it down since. I just have so much fun,” David Arnold says.
His first painting was a picture-in-a-picture, one of his specialties. Titled “The Greedy Frog,” the painting featured a cartoon-like frog sitting atop an ice cream cone attempting to reel in a cherry affixed with wings with its tongue. After completing a few more, Arnold signed up for a series of classes with local artist Nadine Rippelmayer, who after viewing a few of his works instilled the idea that he could make a living through his painting.
“It’s Americana,” Rippelmayer said of her student. “He chooses scenes from America that just kind of focus on what true, small town America is like. It’s very nostalgic. It reminds me of Norman Rockwell.”
Shortly after taking the lessons, Arnold was able to set up his first gallery at Art Emporium in Fayetteville. He quickly developed a number of local collectors. Thanks to a Web site showcasing his work, www.davidarnoldart.com, he has been able to display his work in the Cox Creative Center in Little Rock as well as galleries in Los Angeles, Nashville and Cincinnati.
One of his paintings, “Highway 11 Between Peach Tree & Persimmon Corners,” is featured in the permanent collection of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington, D.C. Arnold has produced a series of paintings involving the scenery of these two fictional Arkansas towns.
Arnold will have many more opportunities and outlets to continue to hone his skills after being recently chosen to participate in a highly selective three-month, artist-in-residence program at the Osage Arts Community in Belle, Mo., later this year.
“They put you in a beautiful place and say ‘Don’t have any distractions. Just go create,” the painter says.
‘Holding the brush’
Arnold sits in his living room and works on his current project: a painting of the winning bidder’s house at a recent March of Dimes auction in Cincinnati. He has done numerous charity events for the organization that he credits to pretty much curing polio through its efforts. As he paints the shadows on a collection of rocks, he makes two points clear as crystal. For one, he has been following Valbona’s orders. Every brush stroke counts.
“I wake up thinking about painting, and I will start, and all of a sudden I’ll realize that it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon and I haven’t eaten anything and I’ll have to stop and go grab something to eat,” Arnold says. “I take a nap and then come back painting and Betsy will have to say ‘It’s time to put the brushes down so you can go to sleep.’”
The other point is to paint a cross into each one of his works.
“That’s my way of saying God gave me this, and I’m going to recognize it…. The most important thing that I can tell you about what I’m doing is that it’s clearly a God thing,” Arnold says. “When I was no longer who I thought I was, God gave me something I can do. It’s clear to me that I was not born with artistic ability. I did not work hard and study and learn how to become an artist, but at the time in my life when I needed it the most, God decided to give me this.
“I’m just the guy holding the brush.”
“God works in funny ways,” adds Molly Arnold, the youngest of David and Betsy’s four daughters who is a junior at the University of Arkansas. “It’s given my [younger] brother [Jake] and I a chance to know my dad in a whole different way.”
The elder Arnold calls Betsy and Molly his “guides in art.”
“We periodically go and tell him ‘That looks flat, that tree looks too small or that angle doesn’t look right,” Molly says.
Then she remembers a favorite saying of her father’s whenever she or her siblings have a rough day: “If that’s the worst thing that happened to you today, then life’s pretty good.”
And right now, with a brush in his hand and Betsy and the family’s two boxers by his side, Emma and Josie, her father can’t really complain.
“If someone told me 15 years ago this is where I’m going to be, I would have said ‘Where do I sign up?’”