Quadriplegic painter donates piece to benefit Spinal Cord Society
By ERIC MOSKOWITZ, Standard-Times staff writer


PETER PEREIRA/The Standard-Times
Deborah Fleet, an artist from Acushnet, started paiting after a 1982 car accident that left her quadriplegic. She has honed her talent and won local awards, and a painting of Ned's Point Light will be raffled to benefit the Spinal Cord Society.
MATTAPOISETT -- A striking oil painting of the Ned's Point Light will be raffled off this weekend at Harbor Days, one that hangs for now over the mantel of Jamie Shepley's Mattapoisett home, and he's loath to give it up.
But the painting is noteworthy beyond its remarkable realism, the sweeping grandeur of the clouds or even the way the boulders seem to pop off the canvas.
You see, Deborah Fleet is colorblind. She is also self-taught. And one other thing about this Acushnet artist: She is a quadriplegic with limited use of her hands.
Today and tomorrow, tickets can be purchased for the raffle at the Spinal Cord Society booth at Harbor Days, an annual summer festival at Shipyard Park in Mattapoisett. All raffle proceeds (tickets sell for $2 apiece or three for $5) go to spinal-cord injury research.
A star infielder who co-captained the 1979 New Bedford High School softball team, Ms. Fleet, now 40, was left quadriplegic after a 1982 automobile accident. Having taken just a single art class in high school, cartooning at that, she came upon painting mostly as a way to pass the time after her accident.
"It's so good she found out she could do this," said her mom, Harriette, "because she's not really a TV watcher."
In fact, the only programs she seemed to watch were the PBS painting shows hosted by Bob Ross and Bill Alexander. Although Ms. Fleet picked up a brush tentatively at first -- "we were very nervous, to see if she could do it," Harriette said -- painting has proved to be so much more than a hobby to pass the time.
And though soft-spoken and self-effacing -- Deborah shies away from the camera and turns attention to the Spinal Cord Society, not her art -- her talent has clearly foiled her artistic anonymity. Lately, she's been called upon to do a number of commissions for friends, through word of mouth. She's won some local awards, and she's certainly captured the attention of her fellow Spinal Cord Society members.
"Deb's a quiet kind of gal. She doesn't brag at all. In fact, we kind of tripped over (the fact she could paint)," said Martin Costa, the Westport disc jockey who took a proactive approach after a falling tree branch left him paraplegic 16 years ago. He founded a local chapter of the Spinal Cord Society, an organization that attracted his attention because it has no paid officers, so all contributions go directly to research.
Ms. Fleet joined the society, but Mr. Costa had little reason to know about her basically private talents. Then she quietly volunteered some drawings for a fund-raiser a few years ago and this year came forward with the Harbor Days offering.
"It was like, oh my God, here's this amazing painting," Mr. Costa said.
"This is not color-by-numbers stuff."
And Mr. Shepley, a quadriplegic who serves as vice president of the society, called the painting simply "gorgeous."
Her wheelchair makes working at an easel nearly impossible, so Ms. Fleet paints with a brush the way someone else might draw on paper, the canvas laid flat on a table. To gain perspective on the work, she'll set the canvas on an easel and back away from it, then return it to the table and resume painting.
Ms. Fleet rarely paints from life, as her wheelchair makes setting up on location difficult. Instead, she renders inspired canvases from snapshots taken by Harriette, a mutual process they both relish.
It was a friend who used a wheelchair, the late Jeff Hoff of Mattapoisett, who introduced Ms. Fleet to the breathtaking Ned's Point setting several years ago, a subject she has been inspired to paint several times. Her work has grown more refined over the years, thanks to a third TV program that taught art theory and reasoning, not formula: "Welcome to my Studio," with Helen Van Wyk. She has still never taken a class.
A work like the Ned's Point piece being raffled off takes Ms. Fleet about three weeks to complete, painting four hours a day from her bedroom at the Acushnet ranch she shares with her parents and a couple of cats, Tyrone and Fuzzer.
As a painter, Deborah can't say what her strengths are. But Harriete's quick to tell you her daughter's a perfectionist.
"I just figure if you're going to do it, do it as best as you can," Deborah said. "I'm always looking for that perfect painting, and I'm always disappointed. I guess that's what keeps an artist painting."
But painting, she admits, "has been a real blessing for me, to do something that people will pay money for."
After all, she's had to overcome quite an obstacle. She can't tell blues from greens.
"A colorblind artist," her mom laughed, tenderly. "How about that?"
To learn more about the Spinal Cord Society, contact Mr. Costa at (508) 636-3327.


This story appeared on Page A1 of The Standard-Times on July 20, 2002.



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