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Relearning a lost art

Lamar Sparkman suffered a stroke last fall and struggles now to get his hands to create the ideas his mind can picture.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 31, 2002


BAYSHORE BEAUTIFUL -- Easily overlooked in Lamar Sparkman's cluttered studio is a recent sketch of a human rib cage. The shaky drawing is unremarkable, even crude, compared with the more elaborate and beautiful paintings that line the walls of his home.

Yet this may be Sparkman's most ambitious work to date.

"I can still see it," he says of the rib cage, miming the elusive brush strokes.

In his mind, Sparkman knows how the pencil should move. His hand just won't let it.

"I've never been so frustrated in all my life."

In October, Sparkman suffered a stroke which left him nearly paralyzed on his left side, a devastating blow to a left-handed artist. Since then, everything he has drawn has turned out like the rib cage: distorted, ill-defined, plain.

He was once a celebrated newspaper cartoonist, the man who designed the original Tampa Bay Buccaneers logo.

Now, at age 80, he is learning to draw again.

Sparkman had already endured plenty of poor health during his 50-plus years as a professional artist.

In 1960, he suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm. He lost his left eye in 1987 to a cancerous melanoma. In the mid-'90s, he underwent an extensive back operation, and just last July, he had quadruple-bypass surgery.

In every instance, he was drawing again in no time. Only three months after the removal of his eye, he completed a large acrylic and watercolor painting equal in quality to his earlier works. He even sold prints of it.

But none of his earlier maladies hit as hard as the stroke.

Nothing, he says, has presented him with a challenge like this.

"I feel like I'm very determined about the whole thing," he says.

"That's the way I am about everything, and about my artwork in particular. I may never be able to get back to where I was, but I'll sure try."

It will be a slow and difficult process, but those involved in his recovery say Sparkman is dedicated to someday returning to form.

"Typically, we don't see even that kind of motivation in someone younger, and this guy's just gung-ho," says Bob Churchill, a physical therapist at Memorial Hospital's outpatient rehab center.

"He wants the whole package. He's not going to be happy until he's 100 percent again."

A full recovery would be a tall order. A Tampa native, Sparkman has been an artist since age 5, when he drew sailboats on every slip of paper he could reach.

After tours at the University of Florida and in the Army, Sparkman took a position as a sports cartoonist at the Tampa Times. Ten years later, he joined the Tampa Tribune, where he worked until 1987, when he retired to focus on his paintings.

He had long since left a mark on Tampa. In 1975, the late Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse asked Sparkman to design a logo for the NFL's newest team. Within a few months, Sparkman had created "Bucco Bruce," a winking, sabre-biting, feather-capped swashbuckler whose orange-and-red visage graced the Bucs' helmets until 1997.

Sparkman's paintings garnered him further acclaim. He made guest appearances at the Masters Golf Tournament, and several of his original works hang at Augusta National Golf Club. One even made the cover of the clubhouse's menu.

After three-quarters of a century as an artist, Sparkman had no plans to retire his palette. He was still going strong, painting nearly every day in his home studio.

But on Oct. 15, 2001, something went wrong.

Sparkman was painting at home when he stumbled and fell against a cabinet. Once he hit the floor, he realized that he couldn't move. He was fully conscious. The phone was five feet away.

His wife Gloria had learned to leave him alone in the studio, so 31/2 hours elapsed before she checked on him.

She immediately called 911. Doctors told them it was a stroke.

"I didn't know they were going to take my talent away from me," Sparkman says.

He and Gloria were forced to sell their house of 52 years and move into a life care retirement center on Bayshore Boulevard. Gone was his beloved home studio, a loss he still hasn't gotten over.

In his new home, Sparkman began the arduous process of rehabilitation. He regained some sensation on his left side, and before long, he was able to move around.

But it wasn't enough. The lifelong artist knew what he wanted out of rehab. He wanted to paint again.

There were obstacles to overcome, including his failed balance and mobility. He struggled to sit upright at an easel. The simple act of drawing a circle made him nauseous.

He fumbled pens or, worse, clutched them too tightly, aggravating arthritis pain in his hands and wrists.

"He was in a catch-22," says Jenny King, one of his therapists at Memorial Hospital.

"Obviously the talent was still there, but when he would try to employ the talent, he would get pain."

He still knew how to draw a rib cage; his mind was unaffected by the stroke.

He could even picture himself doing so.

"But the brain sends a signal to the muscles," he says. "And it's not sending the signal."

Physical setbacks have hindered Sparkman's progress. He has fallen three times since the stroke, landing each time on his fragile left wrist. He wears a light brace, but with each fall, a full recovery seems more and more distant.

He is still capable of producing great works, King says.

"When an artist has a skill or an ability, that spirit still has a way of coming through," she says.

"I've seen aphasic people communicate beautifully -- they just can't talk. It's just a matter of him figuring out how to produce what's in his head and his heart, and having it come out through his hands at a rate that he can keep up with."

Sparkman's former boss, Tom McEwen, concurs that his friend will do whatever it takes to paint again.

"He probably could learn to do it with a foot if he had to," McEwen says. "He's just so resolute about his artistry. He is going to do it at any and all costs."

Sparkman goes to rehabilitation sessions three times a week, and he continues to hobble about his new studio.

He practices painting with both his left and right hands, and he has even taken up sculpture.

He still has one unfinished painting on his easel: an American Indian riding a horse, with a backdrop of a picturesque mountain view.

It's the painting he was working on the afternoon of the stroke.

Someday, he says, he will finish it.

-- Reporter Jay Cridlin can be reached at 226-3374 or cridlin@sptimes.com.

Lamar Sparkman

AGE: 80

OCCUPATION: Artist, retired cartoonist

WHERE HE LIVES: Canterbury Tower on Bayshore Boulevard, with a weekend home in Boca Grande.

CLAIM TO FAME: Designed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' original logo.

MARRIAGE: 58 years to his wife, Gloria.

FANS, PRESENT AND PAST: Golfer Arnold Palmer, auto racer Johnny Rutherford, the late cartoonists Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible) and Fred Lasswell (Snuffy Smith)

HOBBIES: Fishing

PRIZE CATCH: A 25-lb. salmon, mounted on the wall of his studio.

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