News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Valley Life

May 18, 2014

Timeless Talent: Self-taught artist still creating smiles as 99th birthday approaches

TERRE HAUTE — The colorful scenery of Indiana countrysides illuminates every page of John Christopher’s album. It contains dozens of photographs of his paintings and drawings. They’re Christopher’s visions of covered bridges, bird dogs, barns, ducks, deer and creeks — images from his boyhood, etched in his memory.

One album page contains a brief, handwritten, personal inscription to his decades-in-the-making portfolio: “Year 2010. Still enjoy painting. I am 94 years old.”

Four years after writing that, Christopher continues to create art. Two Sundays from now, he’ll turn 99. His artistic intuition remains sharp. With drawing pencil and a sketch pad ready and waiting atop a table in his room at Cobblestone Crossings Health Campus, an assisted living facility south of Terre Haute, Christopher churns out pictures virtually upon request for fellow residents, staffers and visitors.

His artwork covers the nurses’ station walls, and the home refrigerator of Chelsea Moss, a certified nursing aide at Cobblestone. “I’ve got tons — all kinds,” she said, grinning.

Christopher enjoys the creative process and the recipients’ “thrilled” reactions, as he puts it, and those are his rewards. Though he quips, “I need money, too,” Christopher gives his drawings away to folks he encounters at Cobblestone. “Everybody’s been so kind to me, so good to me, I had to pay it back,” he said, smiling beneath a ballcap while seated in a wheelchair.

The lettering on his cap spells out: “Fontanet High School Beantowners 1914-1961.” Christopher attended classes there in the 1930s, but his interest in art bloomed long before his high school days. Born June 1, 1915, Christopher grew up in the small, northern Vigo County community of Burnett. He had a brother-in-law who drew cartoons for a Terre Haute newspaper in the 1920s. The older relative encouraged 12-year-old John to sketch a boot.

“I can still see that boot in my mind,” Christopher recalled last month.

That simple assignment provided Christopher a lifelong hobby, self-taught. His artistic pursuits endured trials. Christopher began drawing on the brink of the Great Depression as the youngest of four children. The family couldn’t afford sketch paper, so his father brought home leftover packing paper from explosives used at the Fontanet mines, and John drew on those sheets. A couple years later, an accident nearly ended his artwork, and threatened his life.

A bullet, fired accidentally from a close cousin’s gun, pierced Christopher’s abdomen and lodged near his back. The wound was “pretty serious,” he said. They “took me to the hospital.” At age 15, Christopher spent two weeks in a Terre Haute hospital and didn’t fully recover for another two years. The injury caused him to miss school, too.

Eventually, he returned to Fontanet High School, “but not for long because I wanted to get out and get a job.” Christopher had a strong reason for his early departure. “I had to work to help pay for the hospital bill.”

In 1930, the emergency-room tab for that incident totaled $15.

The mishap left Christopher with a prominent scar, which he voluntarily displayed for a reporter and photographer last month. And, “the bullet’s still in my back,” Christopher said. Amazingly, he saw the lingering, 84-year-old bullet for the first time in 2012, revealed by an X-ray.

Obviously, Christopher healed. He met his future wife, Nina, in school. John worked as a troubleshooter at a telephone company, for his father-in-law’s trucking company and other assorted jobs through the years. He and Nina adopted a daughter, too. His wife died in 2004, and their daughter has passed away, too.

On a cool, sunny morning last month, Christopher chatted in his room at Cobblestone with his former caregiver, Darlene Kline, his niece, Mary Ellen Nelson, and Nelson’s friend, Ed Campbell. At the doorway, Beth Butts and Shelley Safford — Cobblestone community services representatives — joined the conversation. They speak louder with John because his hearing has diminished a bit. Down the hallway, nurses Patty Switzer and Vamla Patel stood beside a wall covered with Christopher’s drawings.

“He’s as pleasant as his pictures,” Switzer said.

Indeed, Christopher and the sketches he does for others cause smiles. “His spirits lift people,” Safford said.

“He’s like the celebrity of the place,” Butts added. “Everybody wants to sit with John.”

Sometimes, they’ll hand him a page from a magazine, and he’ll re-create the photo. “He loves to draw covered bridges and scenery,” too, his niece added. Folks from Christopher’s church once asked him to draw their old church. He keeps creating, “because I love to do it. It’s the only thing I can do. The good Lord gave me knowledge to do it, so that’s what I do.”

Christopher attributes his artistic skill to his religious faith. The key, he’s discovered, “is having the Lord to back you in everything you do, every thought, every prayer. Of course, back then [during his youth], I wasn’t praying much. I’ve learned a lot.”

Art “is like his purpose,” Butts said.

“When he was in the hospital [recently], he asked for a piece of paper to start drawing,” Nelson, his niece, said.

Christopher eagerly teaches others to draw, as well. Safford figures drawing is a healthy activity for the mind and motor skills.

Scientists at Boston University Medical Campus in Massachusetts research longevity for the New England Centenarian Study. Stacy L. Anderson, project manager of the study, told the Tribune-Star by email, “Although I do not have any direct research on this topic, I suspect that participation in creative arts may be directly related to longevity and better quality of life by preserving cognitive vitality.

“Drawing requires an intense attention to detail and sets mental challenges that may build up a cognitive reserve, which allows the brain to fend off damage associated with aging and disease,” Anderson added. “Creative activities can also give a sense of purpose, as well as an intrinsic pleasure from participating in the arts.”

When a Tribune-Star photographer asked Christopher to demonstrate his art abilities, Christopher picked up a pencil and his sketchpad and instinctively began drawing a covered bridge scene. He saw plenty of those as a young boy. Bridges rank as one of his favorite subjects, along with bird dogs and animals. His depiction of a young boy dragging a sled through snow near the woods won a Cobblestone contest and became a Christmas card cover.

“That was back in my home place, out in the country,” Christopher said.

He loves having Indiana memories as the setting for his art. “Wonderful,” he said, looking up briefly from his impromptu covered bridge piece. “[The state] had a lot to be seen and people didn’t destroy stuff, like they do now, back then.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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