Right-handed artist faces disability by training her left hand
Mary Cottle Smeallie ’78 still remembers the assignment her first-grade teacher gave the class—a self-portrait in advance of parent-teacher conferences.
“I took two extra days to do mine,” she said. “I had done a profile view, and I had long eyelashes, a Spanish mantilla, gold earrings and lipstick. Mine didn’t look like anybody else’s.”
While her teacher might not have been impressed with her over-labored approach, her parents were. They nurtured her passion and her artistic gifts by allowing her to take private classes at the Everson Art Museum in Syracuse.
Bottom line: She was born to be an artist.
So, in 2013, when the tremor in her right hand revealed that she had Parkinson’s disease, a progressive illness that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements, she cried the whole way home from the doctor’s office.
“It was a devastating diagnosis,” she said. “I thought it would be like a pinched nerve or an essential tremor. This was life-changing.”
Initially, the effects were minimal. Her right hand had a tremor but she continued to teach art at the elementary level and kept her diagnosis private. As time passed, it was harder to hide.
“Little by little, I told my friends and eventually told my boss and coworkers,” she said. “Then I was recommended to an exercise program that is specially designed for Parkinson’s patients. That was the best thing for me both physically, socially and emotionally.”
Now, twice a week she dons her pink boxing gloves and participates in explosive movement through boxing, core strength and balance. This non-athlete has excelled so much that her husband (John Smeallie ’79) “sleeps with one eye open,” she joked.
But her artwork was a different story. How would she be able to continue to create art when she was losing control of her dominant right hand?
Art had been the constant throughout her life. She had earned a living by using her talent in a variety of ways. From making signs and window displays at Clothing Junction in Oswego her senior year of college, to becoming a fashion illustrator for a department store, to being a cartographer for a power company to teaching art in both public and private schools, she could depend on her art to support her financially and spiritually.
John Smeallie said throughout their 43 years of marriage that no matter where they lived they always found a space to create for Mary to do her art—whether it was in the den or small space outside of the kitchen.
“Whatever apartment we had, we found a spot because she had this drive within her that she had to do her art,” John said.
Mary Smeallie said in those dark moments when she started to question her ability to continue making art, she drew inspiration from her father and her grandmother who she described as being “amazing people” who possessed “a true Irish tenacity.”
“My father was never a quitter, and he taught me that attitude had a lot to do with success,” she said. “Determine what you want and then go get it.”
So she did. She couldn’t imagine a life without art, so she began drawing and painting with her left hand.
Practice Makes Perfect
“I don’t remember a date when I said, ’OK, left hand, you’ve been doing nothing all these years. Let’s get to work,’” Smeallie said. “It wasn’t like that. It was gradual, but thank God, I did it. Maybe I was meant to be a left-handed person in the beginning, as some people say my work is better with my left hand than my right.”
Her friends said they admire her resiliency.
“Mary may be little in stature but her spirit is fierce and undaunted,” said Tina Verno Stevens ’79, who has been friends with Mary and John for four decades. “Nothing was going to stand in her way. That’s who she is. She’s a tough cookie!”
Stevens said she truly believes that a lot of her friends’ resiliency and strength comes from navigating and surviving the winters in Oswego.
“Mary and John see life for what it is. They see the hardships and they choose to tackle them, as opposed to fold up their tent and go home. They are truly special people, and they take care of each other.”
In addition to Mary’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, John, a retired video producer, struggles with peripheral blindness, the result of his Type 1 diabetes.
“It’s weird that I am a videographer who depended on my vision, and Mary, an artist who needs her hands to create,” John said. “But we work together.”
For example, the couple recently built a bench together, with Mary getting the screws lined up into the corresponding holes with her eyes and John tightening them with his hands.
With Vibrant Color and Bold Strokes
Elise Frazer, who is the wife of Mike Frazer ’79 and a close friend of the Smeallies, is an artist herself and said she is impressed with Mary’s ability to create equally bold and compelling art after transitioning to her non-dominant left hand.
“She’s not one to ring her own bell,” Frazer said. “That’s not Mary. She just goes on her quiet little self. She continues to do her art and have her exhibitions, and found a way to keep doing what she loves. If it had happened to a weaker person, they might have curled into a ball and given up, but there’s no way Mary was going to do that.”
As the progression of the disease looms, John said his wife has been prolific in her creation of art.
She recently created 50 works for a one-woman exhibition at the Noah Webster House in West Hartford, Conn., which ran from November through December 2022, and she’s also participated in craft shows and hosted an open house in her art studio that adjoins her home in West Hartford, Conn.
“She’s always been different, and walks to the beat of her own drum,” said John, who fell in love with her (and her pen and ink drawings for The Oswegonian) during their college days when they listened to jazz at the Cameo Cafe in Oswego and took long walks along the lake shore. “She’s an Irish girl with a strong will. She’s tough. She’s always been driven. But now her motivation may be a little different because now she feels like she might lose her left hand, so she’s doing everything she can and drawing like crazy.”
Perhaps even more impressive than her beautiful artwork is her indomitable spirit—often expressed in her sense of humor.
“She is so funny,” Elise Frazer said. “She comes out with some of the best stuff.”
The three friends have a running joke about blue suede shoes, stemming from an incident during Reunion 2019 when Smeallie’s blue shoes were inadvertently left near their car outside of Lakeside residence halls. It became a running joke through the weekend, and Smeallie ended up painting each of them an Oswego sunset with a pair of blue suede shoes hidden somewhere in the photo.
When Reunion returned to its in-person format in 2022, Tina and Elise planted blue shoes throughout Smeallie’s room, outside her Riggs Hall door and wherever she could stumble upon them. Stevens was hiding the last pair of shoes when Smeallie came out of the bathroom and caught her in the middle of the prank.
“Humor has healing properties,” Smeallie said. “If you can laugh at yourself, you’re much better off, especially in tough times. And art has been cathartic. The fact that I can still do it, that’s my most important goal.”