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Chicago artist Minnie Watkins turns stroke into triumph on canvas

Chicago artist Minnie Watkins has new mission in her work after stroke
Chicago artist Minnie Watkins has new mission in her work after stroke 04:17

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Imagine a medical emergency that suddenly takes away what you love most—changing the way you see the world, and yourself.

That is just what happened to Chicago artist Minnie Watkins. But Watkins turned her stroke into a triumph.

Watkins remembers the date—June 25, 2020. Her brother had recently died, and she had just finished his obituary.

"I had the stroke two days before his funeral," Watkins said.

Watkins' world is divided into two parts—before and after the stroke that changed her life and her work. And of course, the date when everything changed was in the midst of the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watkins spent nearly six weeks at Stroger Hospital of Cook County—isolated except for her caregivers and the sounds of pandemic despair.

The scariest part, she said, was "hearing code blues like it was regular music playing all the time." A code blue is an emergency involving a cardiac or respiratory arrest.

After Stroger, it was rehab at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital—and a big decision.

"After the stroke, I just needed to paint," Watkins said. "I needed to feel like I was an artist again."

But picking up the brush was not easy. Watkins' brain had changed.

"I didn't know what to do," she said, "and I was trying to figure it out. It's something I'd done for 30 years."

For decades, Watkins was known for her portraits. But after the stroke, faces didn't look the same to her.

"I had to retrain myself to see, and how to see what I saw in my head and put it on the canvas," she said.

So Watkins found a new direction when a friend told her to paint what she knew—stroke and recovery.

The paintings after the stroke display Watkins' struggle. While her paintings before her stroke were realistic portraits—including one of Ida B. Wells that ended up in the permanent collection of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton—the ones afterward show abstract lines of confusion and crossed boundaries. They are images of a brain in flux.

Minnie Watkins

Subsequent more concrete work was full of symbolism referencing her challenges. One shows a face covered with chains, chain-link fencing, and barbed wire, with the jail bars and a brick wall superimposed on the neck.

Minnie Watkins

In "Left Brain, Right Brain," the two sides of Watkins' brain battle each other. The left side is black and white.

Minnie Watkins

"You see very definite shapes, circles, diamonds, lines—those things are very rigid. They're literal," she said.

But the right side is full of color.

"And you see running paint and free-flowing forms," Watkins said.

Watkins is hoping her recent exhibit at Sinai Health spoke loudly and clearly. It featured 27 works of art—all depicting her journey and determination.

"I knew I was going to come out, because I had a piece the whole time about it. I wasn't afraid, and I refused to—I made a choice not to take on fear," she said. "I just made that choice."

Watkins said she is better for it all.

"My art has expanded. It has become broader. I'm not in a box anymore," she said. "It's a God-given talent, and I want to make a difference with what God gave me."

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