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Artist says thank-you with his brush

The hospice's help first came as his wife succumbed to cancer. Now he's the one fighting the disease. Again, the hospice is there.

By CARLOS BRICENO
Published December 23, 2003

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[Times photo:Cherie Diez]
Doug Strutz usually wears glasses, except when he paints his abstracts. The blurriness, he says, helps him to blend the colors.
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Doug Strutz and his companion, Alice Otis, watch a video of his work during a hospice ceremony at his home in November.

ST. PETERSBURG - Doug Strutz knew he was ill, but he didn't realize how seriously.

He lost about 15 pounds last winter, and then the chills and fevers started this year. He felt weak, but that didn't diminish his imagination or his passion for his art. So, while doctors conducted tests, Strutz painted. The resulting images surprised the St. Petersburg artist.

To Strutz, the images looked like worms working their way through various body organs. He worked on two more canvases, and the same images kept reappearing.

"I said to myself, "This is no good.' People don't want to look at a work of art and see a stomach or organs, and they don't want to see cancer because that was the only name I could give it. I couldn't name it Worms Digging into St. Pete Beach or something like that," Strutz, 80, said.

He received the diagnosis in mid August; his subconscious had been correct. Strutz had Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph system. His doctor recommended that he get help from the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, an organization that cares for people who are terminally or chronically ill. Strutz was familiar with it.

For three months in 1990, the hospice helped him care for his wife until she died from cancer. While signing paperwork to become a hospice patient himself, he recalled his appreciation for that help years ago, and he came up with an idea. He was going to work on several abstract paintings and donate them. The hospice could sell them during fundraising events. Strutz also had selfish reasons for the project, he said. He wanted to keep busy during the start of six months of chemotherapy.

So, he began painting for several hours on days when he felt strong enough.

"It was kind of a cure for me to have something to do rather than sitting around and moping and painting for another show," said Strutz, who has asked his artist friends also to donate works to the hospice.

"I usually have a one-man show in February. I had no reason to do that, because I didn't know if I was even going to be here. You know how that is. So I painted for Hospice."

Art has been a passion for Strutz since his childhood in Milwaukee. A high school art teacher whose specialty was surrealism was an especially big influence on Strutz. For years, he worked in the Midwest in industrial real estate sales and in marketing, using his artistic talent to develop brochures, products and fliers.

Because he was an only child, he and his wife moved to St. Petersburg in 1972 to care for his ailing parents. When he retired from real estate, he became a docent at the Salvador Dali Museum in 1983 and continued taking art classes. He is skilled with paint, stone, clay and other mediums.

Indian heads made out of plaster. Wooden masks. Abstract paintings that have appeared in art shows and galleries throughout Florida. Cracked tile mosaics, including one by his front door depicting a woman on a beach, influenced by a trip to Spain in 1996. His art collection of more than 50 years fills most of the walls and shelves at his home.

When he finished the hospice project, he had completed 15 abstract paintings over three months, each filled with a dazzling display of colors. Several appreciative hospice officials received the artwork during a viewing at his home last month.

"For any of us, thinking about the final phase of our life is something we avoid," said Mary J. Labyak, president of the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast.

"It's frightening and obviously a very sad time for people, but it also can be - and is for so many people - a time of great gifts and great riches. When life is short, people frequently, like this gentleman, have an intensity of living and an appreciation of life and wanting to do things that are important for whatever remaining life they have."

The hospice is displaying several of Strutz's paintings at its various service centers in the bay area, Labyak said. Others will be available for viewing at two future locations: the hospice's new administrative offices on Roosevelt Boulevard in mid Pinellas, which should open in early 2004, and at its new building in downtown St. Petersburg, which won't open for at least a year.

Both locations will have art galleries, Labyak said. The suggested prices for Strutz's paintings range from $800 to $1,900. They will be sold at fundraisers, except for several the hospice will keep as mementos, Labyak said. Strutz, meanwhile, will stop receiving chemotherapy in February, the month of his 81st birthday, which he hopes to celebrate with a one-man show of his most recent paintings at Central Thyme Restaurant and Studio Szabries, both on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.

"Based on the halfway mark in my chemotherapy, the doctor has given me a good chance of survival," he said.

-- Carlos Briceno is a freelance writer in Largo.

[Last modified December 22, 2003, 10:27:47]

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