One day while gallery owner Garbo Hearne visited his Little Rock home, C.J. Duvall Jr. shared with her the collage art he created to cope with the aftermath of a series of strokes.
For more than a year, Hearne encouraged Duvall to share his pieces with others, and he declined each time, insisting that his works were a private, therapeutic experience that others wouldn’t care to see anyway. Last year, with a little push, he changed his mind.
“[Hearne] kind of kept it up until last November. She said, ‘You know, they have something called Stroke Awareness Month, and it would be really nice if you would come to my gallery and display it during the month of May because our community really needs to become more aware,’” said Duvall, who later learned that his strokes were a side effect of an antihistamine he was taking. “When she said ‘our community,’ it hit me.”
Strokes of Life, an exhibit of 23 works of collage art by Duvall, are on view at the Hearne Fine Art Gallery in Little Rock through June 15. The works were created between 2011 and 2014.
Duvall’s first stroke took place in 2008 and about three more happened over the next three years. From his strokes, he has permanent damage to his right occipital lobe and left frontal lobe. He’s experienced loss of sight in his right eye, which he’s since recovered, and difficulty with vocabulary and memory.
Through his recovery, he struggled with how he would relate to his two daughters, Alisha, 18, and Alana, 16. In “Dad With Girls #1,” pieces of paper depict the silhouettes of Duvall and his daughters, and each paper reads, “Dear Girls: Diary of Letters From Dad.”
“Relationally, I was working on trying to find out if I could relate to my daughters the same way I used to,” said Duvall, a highly regarded minister, philanthropist and former 25-year corporate executive who currently works in real estate development.
Also in his recovery, Duvall struggled to pronounce any word with the letter “P.” His piece “Repeat Ten Times” features the words pay, pea, pie, poe, and poo, words that his speech pathologist instructed him to practice 10 times at home. Instead, he would practice them 100 times.
“I couldn’t say them. And because I couldn’t say them very well, I became frustrated. Because I was frustrated, I started crying,” he said. “I thought the crying was just because I was sad. It turns out later it’s associated with the condition that I had.”
Duvall was diagnosed with Pseudobulbar Affect, or PBA, which is a permanent condition that results in uncontrollable or involuntarily laughter, crying and shouting. In his diary, Duvall tracked how his PBA affected him on a scale of 1 to 10. In his work “No. 10,” an extremely emotional face is depicted on top of text from the third stanza of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a nod to a personal experience.
“One day, I was in church, and we were singing the Negro national anthem. We got to the third verse: God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way, Thou who has by Thy might, Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray. I just blew up [crying],” he said. “And everyone at church thought, ‘He’s crazy.’ Some people thought, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ Mine wasn’t quite comfortable enough for people, and I couldn’t control it. I had to leave. I call it No. 10 because it was the worst one of all time.”
While portions of Strokes of Life honor Duvall’s daughters, others express the “emotional tumult” he experienced and his mental state. Because of people rudely criticizing his speech and staring at him after his strokes, he became ashamed and discouraged. Creating art and sharing it at Hearne Fine Art, he said, helped him through that.
“It taught me that I probably should not have been ashamed of sharing the message because so many people have embraced it, saying, ‘Thank you very much for teaching us, for informing us, for reminding us to be aware and to think about this,’” Duvall said.
By next year, Duvall hopes to retire and pursue art full time. He said he hopes that through viewing Strokes of Life, others will learn the importance of being mindful of their health. And just like how he learned to be more sensitive to those with difficult health journeys, he hopes others will also walk away from the exhibit with more compassion.
“To love individuals despite whatever their situation might be, to try to find ways to give them encouragement, that made this exhibit more important for me personally,” he said.