OWATONNA — When artist LeAnn Gehring Ryan suffered a life-threatening stroke, art got her through.
But more responsible for her recovery than paintbrush and pain meds was the support of Evan Ryan, her 25-year-old son, and her significant other, Charlie.
Both men found their way into her paintings, naturally, and the series of work post-stroke told the story of change, pain and passion in a very playful way with use of bright colors and interesting characters.
“They gave me a 50 percent chance of living,” she said. “People asked me, ‘You must have had physical therapy?’ I had art therapy. I worked it out through those paintings.”
Ryan, an Owatonna-native living in North Mankato experienced the life-changing event in February 2009. She suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and now, six years later, 12 of the 26 paintings she created in the aftermath are currently on display at the Owatonna Hospital throughout October.
The 57-year-old artist has always used the crow to represent herself in her work and Charlie, a rooster.
With acrylic sometimes used as watercolor and an honest imagination, the series goes from her being brought to the hospital for an 11-day stay via helicopter to the post-traumatic stress and depression that Ryan depicts with a whimsical style.
“When I was younger, my art was much more subdued. The older I’ve gotten, the more playful I’ve gotten with color,” she said.
She grew up near Lemond Road and graduated from Owatonna High School in 1976 (she’s celebrating her 40th class reunion next year). She went on to receive her bachelor’s degree at Winona State and took some grad painting courses at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Around the time of the stroke she was still teaching art at Mankato West High School.
“Some of my memories around that time, they’re pretty iffy. Back at school, I’m really good with names,” she said. In a room full of 150 kids, it would take a week to know them all, but now it’s more of a challenge.
She said she still has limited feeling in her dominant right hand and she has overcome the negative feelings that consumed her mind following the stroke.
“I cried a lot. I would sit in my house and look at a painting on my wall I had done. I would cry because I would think I would never paint again,” she said.
Evan was instrumental in getting Ryan back to the canvas, but before she started painting, she had to relearn the alphabet. So her son, living in Fargo at the time, made her an alphabet book that she promised to write, A through Z, every day.
“He’s like ‘you got to pick up a brush.’ After that they really started to flow,” she said. “After a stroke, the part of your brain not injured becomes even stronger. That was the creative side of my brain.”
When she reached her year milestone, she was able to get off some heavy-duty anti-seizure medication which some doctors told her she would have to take the rest of her life. But even prior to the anniversary, she was back in the classroom.
“I don’t know if that was a good thing or bad thing. It was really hard on me — a taxing kind of thing,” she said.
There were a lot of challenges through her recovery, from learning her ABC’s to lessening the ceaseless chatter in her head and feeling comfortable in public. A little hippie coffee shop and the Renaissance Festival were both places where she felt normal and inspired her to include them in the series.
After 13 years teaching at Mankato West, Ryan is now retired.
A trade she learned OHS, jewelery making, is something she is quite consumed with at the moment when she’s not painting.
She’s gone on to create other works since the stroke that are now more personal and, like always, playful.
Silvan Durben, director of Owatonna Arts Center, which hosts the Healing Arts Exhibit along with the hospital, said Ryan’s work is a “double-edge” and sort of “surreal-like.”
“It’s kind of like having one foot in reality and one foot where you are observing yourself while all this stuff is happen to you,” he said.
The paintings alone are pleasing to the eye, but what makes them powerful are the statements adjacent that tell of all the struggles and successes Ryan experienced after her stroke.