Lives Remembered

Donald Woodruff (1946-2010): After a debilitating accident, he became an artist -- and an inspiration

By George Gonzalez
Sunday, December 26, 2010

Donald A. Woodruff spent his last six years painting a fence. That undertaking would appear unremarkable, but Woodruff was quadriplegic and had no feeling below his collarbone. The only movements his body could make were limited up-and-down, left-to-right motions with his right arm. The fence work was painstaking; he worked with a brush extension fashioned out of old gardening tools and metal clasps, and painted from a motorized wheelchair. Still, Woodruff was intent on making the fence a piece of art.

In 1964, after a night of drinking with high school friends, Woodruff got behind the wheel and collided head-on with another drunk driver in North Beach, Md. Woodruff was left paralyzed from the neck down. As part of his rehab, a nurse brought him a paint-by-number kit, with which he learned to weave a thin brush through the frozen fingers in his right hand.

Over time, Woodruff worked with oils and watercolors and rendered portraits of sea captains and cowboys. Perhaps his most striking portrait was that of his girlfriend Lauren Wilson's father in profile: the face hardened and dusk-orange, a cigarette angled out the mouth, and short white hair capped under a newsboy hat--projecting an illusion of flat relief against a solid black backdrop. No less impressive were Woodruff's series of birds cast in traditional Japanese watercolors or his depiction of a legless hand biker speeding down a race lane. He also painted from photographs taken by Joy, his daughter from an earlier relationship, who was born 10 years after his accident.

Woodruff, who was an insurance adjuster with Cigna from 1974 to 1984, sold his work at local art shows and accepted commissioned portraits of families and dogs. Displaying his work, however, was not easy. His van was outfitted with a series of levers allowing him to drive and haul, but lifting the artwork and setting up his art table required greater effort. Wilson, whom he had known for more than 20 years, became his extra set of hands.

Woodruff and Wilson met at Inwood House, an apartment community in Silver Spring for people with disabilities -- she is 3-foot-9 and has endured worsening arthritis. When they decided to move into a house in 2003, they needed to build rooms with wide doorways for his wheelchair and low countertops for her.

Their house, once constructed, sat closer to the fence than planned, and the southern view from each window was of the pale brown boards. Or as Woodruff saw it, a canvas. "Don decided to paint a view," Wilson said, and he devised scenes for the fence consistent with the decor inside the house. He wanted to depict a Japanese water garden to match the potted bamboo and accordion fan in the living room; red cardinals and dogwoods to commemorate the room where Wilson readied birdhouses to hang on the fence; and another segment of fluttering butterflies that echoed the design on the clock and curtains in the kitchen. Flanking the house, on opposite ends of the fence, he planned two seascapes, which he started in 2004.

Woodruff's first representation, a beach scene, was a tribute to memories of past summers spent at Selby-on-the-Bay and Beverly Beach, as well as a visual joke for occasions when their Silver Spring home would be coated with snow. He waited for warm spring days to work outside, and because he couldn't sweat -- due to his spinal cord injury -- Wilson misted his face and neck to stay cool. But agreeable weather made the task no less grueling. He squeezed paint tubes with his mouth to extract colors, which he mixed on a lap tray. And the fence boards were porous, so the bold coloring of the sea took multiple passes from Woodruff's brush, exhausting his arm and fingers. On "drop days," brushes and paint hit the ground with frustrating regularity, flecking his chair wheels with colored blotches.

Woodruff worked for two springs on the beach scene, fashioning a panorama of precise detail: a wispy blue sky, a windowed boathouse, a small fisherman dangling his legs off a dock -- all anchored by a white-walled lighthouse.

From 2005 to 2006 Woodruff worked on the fence while completing commissioned works that each consumed a week's worth of labor. He missed the 2007 fence painting season after a kidney removal, and persistent infections in 2008 kept him indoors.

"Don was either in the hospital or painting," Wilson recalled. "He was constantly looking out the window and tweaking it in his mind. The fence was the fun stuff."

Woodruff was one scene short of completing the fence when he caught pneumonia this past May. He died a week and a half later, at 63, leaving the fence outside the last window bare.

Woodruff never divulged details about any of the pieces. He insisted on a slow reveal, telling Wilson, "Just wait a minute, and you'll see."

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