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A life in watercolors: Sioux Cityan discovers the healing powers of art

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SIOUX CITY | When artist Jim Brownlee, 81, creates his imaginative watercolor paintings, he uses his bed as a makeshift desk.

"(The bed is) the perfect height for me," the Anthon, Iowa, native said inside his room at Westwood Specialty Care. "Plus, the overhead lighting is best in that spot."

Despite suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as well as a degenerative hip that landed him in a wheelchair, Brownlee said his art keeps him active.

"I used to be a hunter and a fisherman and I loved golfing and playing tennis," he explained. "Since I can't do those things any more, I paint."

Throughout Brownlee's room are examples of his work that depict wildlife, landscapes and picturesque scenes of nature.

"Sometimes, I'll base my painting off a photograph," he said. "Other times, I'll paint strictly from memory."

A self-taught artist

Showing off his detail-oriented work, it's clear Brownlee has an eye for art. Outside of a few high school art classes, he is completely self-taught.

"After graduating from East High School, I worked for Sioux City Iron Company before going into the U.S. Army for two years," he said. "Then I started working for Wilson Trailer."

Yet Brownlee also wanted to paint.

"By my late 20s, I realized painting was something I could do well," he said. "In time, it became a passion for me."

Even after Brownlee began working at the Hall Monument Company, he still found time for his art. 

In his lifetime, Brownlee said he has completed around 400 paintings. A few of them were commissions, including the painting he considered his personal favorite.

"The painting was of an old house located in the woods near Jackson, Neb.," he said. "I sold it to a doctor in Kingsley, Iowa, and it's still hanging in his office."

"I still kick myself over selling that one," Brownlee admitted. "But those are the breaks."

Mostly, he has given his art away for the enjoyment of his family and friends.

"It's special when you're able to share your art," Brownlee said. "It's like sharing a piece of yourself with someone else."

And for the past 29 years, he's been sharing his life with Kirsten "Kris" Hermann, whom he calls his "better half."

Meeting his fiercest critic

"Kris and I never married," Brownlee noted. "If I had the chance to do it over again, I'm sure I would've proposed."

Hermann simply shrugged her shoulders.

"We've always gotten along fine," she insisted. "I have very few regrets."

But Hermann has quite a few opinions. Indeed, she calls herself Brownlee's "biggest fan" as well as his "fiercest critic."

"If I was left to my own devices, I'd never know what to paint," Brownlee said. "Kris is the one who comes up with many of the ideas for my artwork.

"Plus Kris critiques all of my work. Kris is very diplomatic, though."

"I'll never come out and say something is bad," Hermann said. "I'll just gently suggest he might add something extra to the painting."

Art as therapy

Westwood Specialty Care activity director Marlena Schultz love to watch the way Brownlee and Hermann interact with one another.

"They're a wonderful couple," she said.

Yet when Brownlee became a Westwood Specialty Care resident two-and-a-half-years ago, Schultz worried about his well-being.

"First of all, he was very sick when he came," Schultz said. "Secondly, he was having a difficult time adjusting to the changes in his life."

Slowly, Brownlee made the decision to take out his paints once again.

"My painting can be sporadic and I would go years without picking up a paintbrush," he explained. "The best thing that I've done at Westwood is going back to my art."

It helps when Hermann is providing plenty of encouragement.

"When I first came to Westwood, I was missing Kris and prayed to God that I could spend more time with her," Brownlee remembered. "I thought I'd live at her house. Instead, she became a resident at Westwood."

"Maybe, I should've been more specific when I was praying to God," he said with a smile.

Indeed, Hermann, who also suffers from COPD, became Brownlee's Westwood roommate around two years ago.

During that time, Brownlee has completed at least 15 paintings. 

"I'll paint for a while and, then, I'll stop to let the watercolor dry," he said. "Sometimes, I'll paint well into the night."

Capturing life, one painting at a time

Brownlee readily admits painting is therapy for him.

"It's both mentally and physically challenging," he said. 

This is why Brownlee is happy that Westwood offers a regular art class that is taught by Shannon Smith, a member of the facilities' maintenance crew.

"It's fun seeing the residents who may be picking up paintbrushes for the first time," he said. "They like their work and many hang the pieces in their rooms."

Brownlee knows that feeling quite well.

"When you get older, there are so many things you can no longer do," he said. "I may no longer be able to hunt or fish but, you know, I can still paint wildlife and I still paint walleye."

Brownlee lets out a big smile while looking at a room that is dominated by his art pieces.

"As long as I can hold onto a paintbrush, I'll still be painting," he said.

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