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After Loss, Finding Peace in Art and Nature

Her husband's death from dementia led illustrator Nancy Carlson to rely on art


Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

Illustrator Nancy Carlson vividly remembers the spring day in 2007 when she simultaneously felt like “the happiest person in the world” while at the same time experiencing an odd sensation that everything was about to change.

Nancy Carlson
Nancy Carlson

“My husband Barry was outside blowing leaves, my daughter was in the kitchen and one of my sons was playing his guitar upstairs,” said Carlson. “I looked out the window at Barry, and something started to nag at me. I can’t describe what it was.”

Five years later, Carlson’s husband, Barry McCool, was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, (FTD), a degenerative disease which dramatically affects personality, decision-making behavior and thought processes. As Carlson was to discover, McCool’s illness led him to make tragic financial decisions, ultimately resulting in the family having to sell their home, cars, art and other assets, and face bankruptcy.

Carlson, the author of more than 60 children’s books featuring popular characters like Harriet the Dog, Louanne the Pig, Loudmouth George and others, is a superstar in the children’s book world in the Twin Cities, where she lives, and beyond.

McCool had been responsible for managing her career, so not only was Carlson struggling with the stark reality of financial losses, she was painfully watching while the man to whom she had been married since 1979 was fading away, facing many mental and physical challenges and unable to emotionally connect with his family. In 2017, at 67, McCool died in a nursing home.

A Doodle A Day

In addition to her blog, Putting One Foot in Front of the Other, where Carlson candidly shared her sadness, frustration, and anguish at how FTD was destroying the life she and McCool had built together, Carlson relied on her art to bring much-needed peace.

"Winter Moon" Nancy CarlsonCredit: Nancy Carlson
“Winter Moon”

During the challenging years of McCool’s illness, she began compiling what she calls “a visual diary” that consisted of one “doodle” every day, which she then posted on her website.

“To have an outlet of creativity when you’re going through a horrible time, it’s just a godsend,” said Carlson, who would draw one small image, either early in the morning, or at night before going to bed.

Much of the collection was recently on display at the Bloomington Center for the Arts in Bloomington, Minn. at an exhibit called “A Doodle A Day: Ten-Year Doodle Journey” where 400 colorful pictures covered two very large walls. The images range from light-hearted to funny, from reflective to melancholy.

Carlson pointed out one image in particular: a dog perched next to a table, with a small bunch of pine boughs on the top. “My husband died in the month of November, and his funeral was in December,” she said. “To me, that’s a very sad photo.”

Walking a Different Path

Now, Carlson is exploring new horizons and new challenges, in both art and life.

“On my 65th birthday last October, I decided to stop doing so many doodles,” Carlson said. “It was time to try something else.”

Since then, she has returned to fine art and finds herself particularly captivated by a new series of trees she’s working on. “Drawing trees is almost Zen-like for me now,” Carlson said.

Not only drawing trees, but hiking among them, especially in northern Minnesota, near the Duluth and Grand Marais areas. She’s traveled across all sections of the 500-mile Superior Hiking Trail twice, but her goal is “to do it all in one shot” at some point.

“The last leg is the most beautiful. You get to this cliff and you look over Canada. It’s amazing,” said Carlson, who didn’t start hiking seriously until she turned 60.

For Carlson, the natural world became the refuge she sought during McCool’s illness; the last three years of his life were spent in the nursing home due to the level of care he required. As Carlson was able, she’d retreat to the woods for solitary, day-long hikes as a means of coping with the sadness and stress (in addition to spending time with him, she was having to work a variety of jobs, including shoveling snow, to make ends meet).

“I still love being alone up there,” she said.

Telling Her Story

Carlson wants to do a picture book about nursing homes, since she saw firsthand how her two young granddaughters, now 6 and 4, experienced visits to see their grandfather.

"Lake and Sunrise" Nancy CarlsonCredit: Nancy Carlson
“Lake and Sunrise”

“The youngest one won’t remember him, but the older one will. She was always very brave when she was there and I know it wasn’t easy. It’s the only way she knew him,” said Carlson.

But now, there’s another story that Carlson is working on — her own. She’s writing a memoir about her husband and the impact of his illness on their lives, and his death.

“It’s basically torture,” she admitted, about the emotional challenge of revisiting the dark days. In addition to the writing, Carlson is creating illustrations that make the book into “something more like a graphic novel” about grief, loss and rebuilding her life, which also includes her passion for hiking.

“Art is the way I communicate. It’s how I figure out how I’m feeling. I love the power of words and art together,” she said. “Actually, writing is less painful for me. Reliving all of it visually is harder.”

Carlson hopes to find a publisher for the book this year, and would be grateful if sharing her story could help others the way the stories many shared on her blog during McCool’s illness helped her.

“When you’re in the middle of something like that, it’s hard to imagine the future,” she said. “I remember a reader told me that it wasn’t going to last forever and I had to be ready for what was ahead.”

Carlson added, “I’m so lucky that I’ve always had my art. It just helps me to put color on paper.”

Julie Pfitzinger, editor of Next Avenue, wearing a light blue shirt in front of a mauve background.
By Julie Pfitzinger
Julie Pfitzinger is the editor for Next Avenue’s lifestyle coverage across the Living and Technology channels. Her journalism career has included feature writing for the Star-Tribune, as well as several local parenting and lifestyle publications, all in the Twin Cities area. Julie also served as managing editor for nine local community lifestyle magazines. She joined Next Avenue in October 2017. Reach her by email her at [email protected].

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