A Painting for a Friend
Staff photo by Matthew Modono Bruce Davidson
of Boxborough puts the finishing touches on the
mural at the Concord Health Care Center.
Mural showcases neighbors' bond
By Chrissie Long
Thu May 31, 2007, 06:21 AM EDT
reprinted from the Beacon Newspaper and Online
CONCORD - Sitting in her wheelchair with her hands in her lap, Dorothy Priest looked up at a mural of blended flowers. Irises, daffodils, crocuses and lilacs cascaded through a gentle landscape enhanced by stone walls and grassy hills.
She had planted all of these flowers in her younger days. But now her aged fingers and tired knees couldn’t sink into the dirt to give the plants the care they needed.
Due to a neighbor’s love, the flowers from her garden on Homestead Lane came alive once again outside her bedroom door.
This time it wasn’t just the neighborhood that enjoyed the garden, but the hundreds of people who lived and worked at the Concord Health Care Center.
“I love just looking at it,” said Victoria Dehesa, as she pushed her father by the mural in a wheelchair. “It cheers the place up.”
A woman in a nurse’s uniform commented to no one in particular as she brushed by, “I just get so much pleasure out of seeing this every day.”
For the last several months, Boxborough resident Bruce Davidson, Priest’s long-time neighbor in Stow has been painting her a mural.
“Dorothy taught me a lot about planting flowers,” said Davidson, a professional landscape designer. “It was striking to me that she had loved the outdoors and she was not able to enjoy it living in the care center. I decided to paint her this mural because it would allow me to continuously visit her and it would remind her of the outdoors.”
With Dorothy looking on, Davidson spent that afternoon touching up the near-finished painting.
Their relationship began in 1983, when Davidson bought a house next to Priest’s on Homestead Lane. Davidson, who was 23 at the time, had no living grandparents and adopted Priest as a surrogate grandmother. He would empty her driveway of snow and visit with his two black labs. She would tell him stories and make him tea.
In 1998, Davidson left the neighborhood and moved up to Stow Road in Boxborough. Despite being miles apart from another, they remained neighbors in relationship. They continued their visits and long conversations over tea.
Davidson had moved to a home that had some history with Priest. When Priest’s father was walking in the rain to be married at Hill Road in Boxborough, he had stopped at Davidson’s home to ask for an umbrella.
Last August, Priest had to leave the neighborhood, too. Because of her failing health, she moved to the Concord Health Care Center. The distance between the neighbors grew, but they stayed in touch.
“She felt like family to me,” said Davidson, who continued to visit her. “She felt like what a neighbor should be. We were clearly from vastly different generations, but we found that we had one thing in common and that was our love for the outdoors.”
After several visits, Davidson decided to de-institutionalize the nursing home and make it more home-like for Priest.
Beginning in March, Davidson, a professional artist, began painting his neighbor a mural.
On the blank wall outside her room, Priest has watched the scenery unfold. It began with just pencil lines, and then the blue sky filled in followed by the slate-colored stonewalls and assortments of greens for the grass. Within weeks, a wholesome and picturesque mural greeted residents as they walked down the second-floor hallway.
“We can’t thank you enough for bringing Bruce to us,” activities director Valerie Jackson said, speaking into Priest’s ear. Standing up, Jackson said, “Just to watch this evolve has been incredible. It’s been well-received by residents — the interaction has been heartwarming.”
For Davidson, the process has been equally rewarding.
“This has been the single most satisfying event of my adult life,” he said, looking over the rim of his glasses, his brush poised to paint. “I could have done this in half the time, but it has been the process not the product that has been enjoyable.”
Throughout the hours he has spent in this busy hallway, he has learned the life story of many of the residents. He took one man to a Red Sox game, he smoked fine cigars with another while they discussed the Korean and Vietnam wars. He spoke with a woman named Olive, who went to Mass Art in 1925 and 1926 and drew a tulip into the painting.
“Having never done art in a public forum, I have never had the chance to interact with the people while I paint,” he said. “I am used to operating in a vacuum.”
As he was painting that Tuesday afternoon, a staff member complemented him on his work. Turning to face him, Davidson said, “I forgot. Was there something you wanted me to paint?” When the staff member hesitated, Davidson said, “C’mon, what do you want to see in this?”
He shrugged his shoulders in response: “A fisherman?”
With that, Davidson applied a small black spot to the shoreline in the upper quadrant of the painting.
The mural, originally called Dorothy’s mural, was quickly adopted by the entire nursing home. “It became a community mural,” Davidson said. With careful, but swift brushstrokes he added a purple heart in memory of the husband of a resident who had befriended him while he painted and had recently passed away, a border collie in response to one patients’ request and birds for the names of each of the floors in the home.
Priest, who will be 100 in August, watched the mural come alive as her neighbor painted that afternoon.
Asked how she and Davidson got to be such close friends, Priest smiled and said, “I guess I was just lucky.”