As a young art student at the Worcester Art Museum in the early 1970s, Mary Jane Q. Cross was looking for the meaning of life. But she couldn’t find it in the modern art that was being taught. Cross felt it was dead and lacking the spirit of God. She would dedicate the next 20 years to putting a bit of eternity into each of her paintings. Then tragedy struck and Cross’ faith was put to the test.
To understand how Cross’ world crashed around her in 1993, you must first know how much she loves art. At eight years old, Cross knew she wanted beautiful things in her life and if she was going to get them she’d have to make them. She didn’t know this was called being an artist until she was 11.
Painting attracted her and at 19 she began her studies in Worcester. But this was in a time of expressionism and she didn’t feel she was getting the teaching she needed. So she took matters into her own hands. She read.
Cross, who now lives in Newport, read biographies of artists she loved and looked for tips on how they got their training, what studios they went to, what guilds they were part of, etc. She took these lessons to heart and she had a successful career as a portrait painter.
Then for 19 days she took a popular medication, and she developed a severe permanent right-sided tremor. It was a side effect of the medication. Nineteen days, 18 years ago and her life would never be the same. She lost the ability to hold a brush.
“My world came crashing down,” Cross said. “The tools I needed to work were gone.”
Cross couldn’t even use silverware. Her doctors told her it was a foolish dream to think she would ever paint again. They were dark days.
“I can only look forward,” said Cross. “If I look back, I feel like a live dead artist. I can’t do those paintings anymore.”
For 5½ years she tried different things. She tried etchings, making jewelry, printmaking, anything to satisfy her need to make beautiful things. Eventually she found water-miscible oils that wash up with soap and water. These allowed her to dip her fingers into the paint.
“I threw myself at the mercy of God,” Cross said. “I knew I couldn’t do this alone. When I look at some of my paintings it seems like I am wrapped in arms I’ve never seen. I feel like when I was born, God kissed me on the forehead and said, ‘You’re a painter.’ He didn’t give me that just to take it away.”
She now does almost all her work with her fingers and does a small percentage with prosthetic devices she invented, which allow her to paint tiny details like lips and fingernails. She is known for painting figures in lyrical activities, lilies in reflective water and landscapes in soft light effects. One of her works sold for more than $18,000.
In the beginning, Cross didn’t tell anyone that she painted with her fingers. She kept her hand in her pocket and when someone saw her twitch and asked how she could hold a brush and paint these pictures, Cross was embarrassed. But then after the encouragement of a legally blind artist, Cross began telling people her story.
“I thought it was about me and how I felt about what happened,” Cross said. “But people want to be encouraged. They want to know they can overcome what they can’t change.”
She says this message, along with the spirituality she puts in her paintings, has led people to enter her booth at various art shows and weep.
“Something is going on in their hearts,” Cross said. “I just let them cry. It isn’t me. It’s God working in my life and they see some truth in it.”
Cross’ work will be on display on Saturday, Oct. 16, and Sunday, Oct. 17, at the Hollis Fine Arts Festival. Festival founder Steve Previte was a huge influence on Cross, who asked the established artist to critique her work. She took his suggestions on displays, pricing and many other things to heart. It is a heart that is now full with love of art and inspiration.