慈濟傳播人文志業基金會
Painting Through Adversity

It has been ten years since the accident robbed her of her mobility. Painting has helped her emerge from this adversity. She particularly likes painting landscapes. Trees, flowers, and grass, standing tall after a storm, inspire her.

"Dad, my paintings are on exhibit at the Taichung City Seaport Art Center,” Zhou Yu-ru (周玉茹) said to her father one day. “You must come see them.” He promised that he would do so.

Later, Zhou accompanied her father, almost 80, as they surveyed her works in the vast exhibition hall at the art center, located in the coastal district of Qingshui, Taichung City, central Taiwan. The two of them moved from painting to painting, savoring the happy moments.

“They’re wonderful,” he told her. “From now on you should devote yourself entirely to painting.”

That was in 2015, around the time Zhou began painting on weekends in a large hall on the spacious, 7.5-acre campus of the art center.

Curious passersby stopped to watch her paint, sitting in a wheelchair, a sweet smile on her handsome face. Most notably, the paintbrush was not in her hand but held tightly in her mouth.

“Mom, why does she paint using her mouth?” a little girl asked. “How does she wash her face? How does she brush her teeth?”

Zhou is used to this sort of reaction from a child. The kid’s questions were par for the course, so she paused in her painting to talk to her and demonstrate how she uses her mouth and severely weakened hands to open paint tubes, squeeze the paint out, and mix colors—slowly despite great effort. Through this interaction, she helped the little girl learn more about people like her.

“Why do mouth or foot painters all seem to have a particular penchant for painting nature scenery?” another passerby asked her.

“I like to paint nature because many plants—like trees, flowers, and grass—stand tall and prosper after a storm.” she replied. “Their resilience inspires me.”

In fact, her painting is more than just about nature. “Love from a lot of people has helped me reenter society,” she commented. She hopes to pass that love on to others by putting it into her paintings and creating beautiful works of art.

Zhou paints at the Taichung City Seaport Art Center. She has regained her confidence and her footing in life through her art.

 


Zhou was born in a rural area in Qingshui. At that time, her father worked in construction. He left home early and returned late every day, working hard to raise his six children. Though not formally trained, he could produce professional-grade architectural drawings. Zhou grew up surrounded by those drawings, and that exposure helped her develop her own concepts of drawing and structure.

She started working after graduating from high school. Blessed with a nice figure, sweet looks, and an outgoing personality, she was the belle of the office. Soon she met and married her Prince Charming. As it turned out, Mr. Right he was not.

Their honeymoon did not last very long. When he suffered setbacks at work, he took his frustrations out on her. One day outside a temple, he beat her again. “Over a hundred people watched, but not one stepped forward to help me,” Zhou sadly recalled. Her parents eventually got the word, rushed to the temple, and took her to the hospital.

Later she separated from her husband, and she planned to bring her son to live with her after she had settled down with a job. But one night in 1996, when she was riding her motor scooter home after work, she jerked reflexively to avoid a pothole, the scooter lost its balance, and she flew off.

“Where am I? Am I dying?” she wondered when she regained consciousness in the ICU. Her head was in a haze. In her stupor, she seemed to hear a conversation between her father and her doctor.

“She’ll quite probably be bedridden or even on a respirator for the rest of her life,” the doctor said.

“I’ll look after her even if she’s paralyzed. Please do everything you can to save her,” her father pleaded anxiously.

Zhou wanted to cry, but she was physically unable to do so. Her body was riddled with tubes, and she felt as if she were trapped under a boulder. “Now what? Now I can’t get my son back. What am I going to do?”

The accident had thrown her life and future into total disarray. Her physical pain and emotional anguish made her heart so heavy that she lost the will to live. While still in the ICU she refused to be fed, which resulted in a massive acute hemorrhage in her stomach. It was as if she was intentionally torturing herself to protest against heaven’s cruelty to her.

Her father was devastated too, but he toughened up for his daughter’s sake and did what he could to help her cope. He put a radio by her bed so she could listen to it if she should wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to go back to sleep. Zhou had a beautiful head of long hair. To maintain her good looks, he took the effort to wash it rather than have it cut short. He was a loving, tender dad.

In order to look after her, he rarely had a good night’s sleep. One night, a lump of mucus in her throat made it difficult for her to breathe. She couldn’t reach her father, who was fast asleep from exhaustion, so she tried to inch her fingers toward a plastic bag lying on the edge of her bed. She wanted to rustle the bag in the hope that the noise would wake him.

As she struggled to do that, a sight suddenly jumped out at her—her father’s hair was salt-and-pepper all over. She was sobered by his aging. “Dad has been consumed in recent years with worrying about my marriage, my family, and now my paralysis. He hasn’t had a good rest in a long time.” Her heart went out to him, and she felt she could not continue to wallow in self-pity.

Children gave Zhou a cup of hot soup at a year-end gathering for children in the courtyard of the Presi­dential Office Building in Taipei in January 2015. Liu Zheng-Min

 
 

Rehab marked the beginning of yet another period of suffering for Zhou. Thankfully a positive force came into her life at that time to strengthen her.

One day while she was still hospitalized, a rehab physician walked into her room with a man who was also disabled by a spinal cord injury for a chat.

“Ms. Zhou, are you religious?” the man asked.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head.

The visitor, a few years older than Zhou, then began sharing with her his own rehab experiences. He also read a section of the Bible to her. “Praying is very powerful,” he said. “Whatever your difficulty, you can pray to God.” He then led her in a prayer, which infused a warm current into Zhou’s heart and soothed her anguish.

After that, other Christians often came to visit Zhou in her ward. They brought her food, prayed with her, and nourished her spiritually as well as physically. With love and kindness, they brought her dried-up soul back to life. With a new-found peace permeating her, she decided to put herself in God’s hands.

Zhou moved back in with her parents after she was released from the hospital. Her father had already remodeled the house and made it wheelchair accessible. He had made sure, so far as he could, that her every need would be met.

His love, especially through the tough times, gave Zhou a haven where she could start her new journey. However, she was also fully aware of some facts at the same time: Her father was getting on in years, and he had been diagnosed with cancer. Her older siblings had helped her a lot over the years, but they had their own families to tend to. Zhou wanted to become independent so she could lessen the load that she had placed on them.

Independence at that stage meant mobility independence. She had to be able to go places alone, without being chaperoned. “Dad worried about me at first,” Zhou recalled, “and he would call me on my cell phone every so often to check on me when I was out.”

Gradually she was able to go shopping, go to the post office, and go to church alone. In her electric wheelchair, she freely traversed the streets and alleys in Qingshui.

The church became her second home. The minister, his wife, and the congregation helped her where they could. Zhou was hired to take care of administrative work at the church, for which she received more than a paycheck—she also learned new skills. The minister’s wife also gave her opportunities to design the website and posters for the church. Zhou thus learned much about presentation, design, and aesthetics—skills that would prove useful in her future endeavors.

The Spinal Cord Injured Patients Potential and Development Center in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, held an AutoCAD training class in 2012. Course graduates who met the screening criteria established by the Taoyuan Vocational Training Bureau would be referred to potential employers. Zhou signed up for the class.

Of all the course participants, Zhou was the most seriously injured and the least physically suitable for the course, which required manual dexterity. Even her own father did not have high hope for her success in the class.

“I’ve been drawing architectural designs for 20 years,” Zhou’s father said to her. “I wonder how you could possibly draw those professional, complex lines.”

She knew that he had said those words out of concern for her, but she had made up her mind to learn so that she might improve her marketable skills. Despite long odds, she left home and went to Taoyuan to attend the course.

The class met in a computer lab. Zhou was unable to sit for long periods of time, and her hands were weak, which greatly limited her ability to manipulate the computer input devices to do her architectural drawing exercises and assignments. Still, she worked hard at it.

Each day after class, she went back to her dorm room and lay down on her bed to read her textbooks. She had to bend her neck awkwardly to hold them up between her chin and her shoulder, and she often studied till midnight. Maintaining such an unnatural posture for long stretches of time took a toll on her. She once woke up from sleep to find her neck so stiff she could not turn her head.

All this pain and discomfort, however, did not lead her to quit the class. She stuck it out.

Her computer teacher loaned her a notebook computer so that she could practice more on her own. Zhou really dug in and studied hard. When the other students took off on weekends for leisure outings, she stayed in her dorm practicing. She was determined to use time and effort to make up for her weakened hands and other limitations.

There was one major hurdle that Zhou had to clear before she could pass the certification examination: All students had to complete an assigned drawing in an allotted period of time. She would have to run against the clock.

By applied will, with a fierce tenacity of purpose, she made it. She passed the examination and earned a Grade-III AutoCAD certification at the conclusion of the training class.

Zhou paints at the Taichung City Seaport Art Center, which is an ideal location for her to paint—spacious, quiet, and air-conditioned. She does not function well in the heat outside because her capacity to perspire was adversely diminished by her accident.

 
 

After she had earned the certification, Zhou stayed in Taoyuan to take a pre-employment, hands-on course before going to work in Taipei. Unfortunately, the cold, humid weather in northern Taiwan caused her sinus inflammation to re-emerge in such a big way that she often suffered severe dizziness. She had no choice but to return to her hometown to treat her nose. She was admitted into Tungs’ Taichung MetroHarbor Hospital in neighboring Shalu.

Cai Qing-shao (蔡青邵), an ENT doctor and a devoted Christian, was Zhou’s physician at the hospital. After assessing Zhou’s condition, she told her that her slower blood coagulation made her more susceptible to excessive bleeding during a traditional open surgery. Therefore, she suggested a minimally invasive surgery, even though it would not be covered by the National Health Insurance program. Dr. Cai was aware of Zhou’s finances and her struggle to regain her footing, so she quietly paid for the procedure on Zhou’s behalf.

Zhou’s hard-earned AutoCAD certification did not bring about an easier life for her as she had hoped. Her path forward was still riddled with challenges.

One day she was boarding a shuttle bus when she took a fall and badly broke a thighbone. She was sent home after undergoing surgery, and her hospital social worker referred her to the Taichung Tzu Chi branch for ongoing assistance. Zhou was against it at first. “I don’t want their help,” Zhou said. She was wary of Tzu Chi because she was not sure what they were up to—and the foundation was a Buddhist organization.

Nonetheless, Tzu Chi volunteers visited her soon afterwards. They were warm and helpful. When they learned that she needed an air bed for her aching body, they quickly found a used one, cleaned it up, and delivered it to her.

After seeing the volunteers a few times, Zhou gradually lowered her guard. What had impressed her most about the volunteers was that “They come to help me, but have never tried to convert me to Buddhism.” She appreciated being able to be associated with her church congregation and Tzu Chi volunteers at the same time. The warmth from both groups helped her rekindle her love of life.

“However tough the going may become, I must hang in there and get going,” she said. “So many people have loved me. I must work hard to pass on their love and help more people cherish their lives.”

Zhou’s church and the Spinal Cord Injury Association have arranged for her to share her experience at schools and other organizations. She has been a great inspiration to many people in her audiences, some of whom are also victims of spinal cord injuries.

Zhou boards a van for the disabled operated by the government. Such a van has become her primary means of transportation, whether for seeing a doctor, painting outdoors, or giving a public-service talk.

 
 

Life is a journey of unceasing learning, and as your life unfolds, you may experience different roles. After having been through so much adversity, Zhou learned to accept the role God had assigned her.

In 2014, a beauty pageant was held for women disabled by spinal injuries. Its organizers hoped the contest could accomplish two objectives. First, they hoped to draw people with spinal cord injuries out of their seclusion. Second, they hoped that through such an event, businesses would notice these people and offer more jobs and resources to help them.

Zhou’s friends from church and the Spinal Cord Injury Association encouraged her to compete in this inaugural event. “It never occurred to me that I’d ever take part in a beauty pageant. I’ve never been one who wanted to stand out,” she recalled of her initial disinclination. However, she did sign up as a contestant, along with 42 others, after she understood the good intentions of the organizers.

To prepare for the pageant, all participants sat through lessons on make-up, grooming, posture, and etiquette. Professional teachers gave them pointers and showed them the nuances about how to sit in a wheelchair, where to rest their hands and legs, and how to have a pleasant facial expression.

“Applying make-up was for me the most difficult of all,” Zhou said. “Just penciling my eyebrows and applying eyeshadow would take me an inordinate amount of time and effort.” Before each appearance, she had to get up extra early so she could have the time to apply her make-up properly.

All the work Zhou did beforehand as precisely as she could with her atrophied hands paid off. When people saw Zhou in public, they saw that she was beautiful and elegant. The judges appreciated her efforts, the results that she had been able to deliver, and the confidence radiating from her. She placed third in the contest.

Although the pageant is over, its positive effects continue. Having learned those lessons on self-image, Zhou now always looks nice and elegant in public.

Zhou goes to church every Sunday. She met God when she was at the lowest point of her life. The ministers and fellow Christians she has met have helped guide her out of her struggles. Now she shares her life story with others to encourage them.

 
 
 

She might have needed urging to take part in the beauty contest, but she had never needed prodding to do something else: In her heart she had always wanted to paint.

“I’d wanted to learn to paint ever since my injury, but my family didn’t think my condition would allow me to do it,” Zhou said. “Furthermore, could painting help me put food on the table?” Even her father, her staunchest fan, would not support her on this, but she pressed ahead to pursue her dream.

“I tried painting with my hand at first, but my hand was too weak to exert enough pressure on the paint brush,” Zhou said. “So I tried using my mouth, but that really strained my neck. It wasn’t easy.”

Her neck had been injured in that grave traffic accident, so a traditional easel was not appropriate for her. She needed a multi-functional easel. The only trouble was its higher price tag.

Enter Tzu Chi volunteer Yang Mi (楊密). She knew that Zhou had wanted and needed a set of painting tools and accessories but could not afford them. She wanted to help.

“If you want to paint, then give it your all,” Yang said to Zhou. “Why don’t we go to the store? You can pick out everything that you need so you can begin to paint properly.”

Besides buying art supplies for Zhou, Yang also talked to Zhou’s father and nudged him towards supporting Zhou’s pursuit of her dream.

In 2014, Zhou signed up for an oil painting class in Taichung for people suffering from spinal cord injuries. Teacher Ruan Li-ying ((阮麗英) led her into the world of oil painting by starting with a basic knowledge of painting tools and pigments. Zhou also learned from her classmates, fellow sufferers of spinal cord injuries who had been painting longer. In addition, she copied good art works. One stroke at a time, she gradually improved her ability to express her feelings or the images in her mind on the canvas.

“Last month I went to a reunion for that beauty pageant,” Zhou said. “I took my painting ‘A Road of Gratitude’ there and presented it to the pageant sponsors to thank them.”

The painting was a contrast of red and black. A typhoon was raging outside while she was painting that picture in her room at the hospital. The head nurse stopped by to watch. “Yu-ru, are you painting a storm?” she asked. “Why just black and red?”

Zhou answered, “Painting on a day when a typhoon hit made me feel that just as storms thunder through our land, so too do they show up in our lives. When a storm is about to strike, red clouds line the sky. That’s what the red colors in my painting stand for. See the road in my painting? The love from many people helped build that road for me as I fought and made my way through the storms in my life.”

Zhou has emerged from the storms in her life a stronger person.

Tzu Chi volunteer Yang Mi helped Zhou obtain social resources to help stabilize her life. She also helped her enroll in a painting class. She has looked after Zhou like a mother for more than three years. She phones her often and visits her at the nursing home. Her love has helped propel Zhou forward.

 
 

Qingshui, Zhou’s hometown, is very humid, and the chill during fall and winter often made her ache all over. With the help of Taichung City social workers and Tzu Chi volunteers, Zhou checked into a nursing home in Taichung where she can escape the humidity of her hometown and at the same time receive good care.

Though living away from home and her dear family, she enjoys regular visits from Tzu Chi volunteers, and her minister and church friends still love her like family.

She is grateful to the nursing home for rearranging a storage room on the first floor to create a painting studio for her. In this small space of about 70 square feet are easels, canvases, tubes of paint, and brushes of various sizes—everything she needs to create.

She is painting a rainbow in the calm after a storm. She is painting a new life for herself.

“My Hometown at Twilight”

Zhou painted this piece to mark her move away from her family home to a nursing home. About the painting, in her own words:

Sadness actually imbues this piece.

Dad was exhausted from caring for me. To lessen my family’s burden, I decided to leave my beloved home and Taichung Harbor and move into a nursing home in Taichung City. In my sadness at leaving, I put my last look at Taichung Harbor down on the canvas.

That being said, what I wanted to convey here was not sorrow. The reds and pinks are people’s love and good wishes for me, and the birds in the picture symbolize me flying toward a new life.

Summer 2017