Mural is tribute to surviving cancer

March 6, 2009

By Jeff Richards

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It all started with a Kleenex box.

The type with the swirling colors coiling into elaborate shapes: flowers, leaves, the countryside.

One day Newcastle resident Joe Dowell, 60, found one that particularly interested him, and the color of that lavender box wouldn’t leave his brain, even after a piece of it was removed.

Joe Dowell (right) and artist Jeanette Vesperini pose in front of the mural she painted at his home.  Contributed

Joe Dowell (right) and artist Jeanette Vesperini pose in front of the mural she painted at his home. Contributed

The morning of Aug. 25, 2008, Joe was tending to his garden as he often did since retiring from Boeing in 2007. He wouldn’t remember the next few days after a seizure hit, the result of a cancerous tumor in his head. Still, he moved on.

“There’s a lot of people who have it much worse than me,” he said. “I get enough sympathy from others.”

After several days in the hospital, he returned home. Due to a law, he couldn’t drive for the next six months, and he began thinking of ways to make home a more enjoyable stay. A gym was built in the garage and right next to that, a mural, one inspired by that lavender Kleenex box.

“He kept telling me about the Kleenex box,” said Jeanette Vesperini, who was commissioned by Joe to paint the mural. “I look at it more as a winery.”

The result of her work was an impressionistic view of a Tuscan countryside, filled with sweeping strokes of yellow, orange and, of course, lavender.

Both the mural and the gym are a testament to Joe’s positive spirit, said Mary Dowell, Joe’s wife for the past 30 years.

“When faced with your own mortality, you have to do anything you can to put yourself in a positive frame of mind,” she said. “He’s doing it in a way that he’s embracing other people, and they’re embracing him.”

Jeanette was a friend of the Dowells’, who knew of her artistic pursuits. Joe mentioned he needed some color in the garage if he was going to be spending a lot of time there, and Jeanette came to mind.

Despite more experience in 3-D art, she said painting the mural was a welcome challenge.

“It’s pleasurable work that keeps me off the streets,” she said with a laugh. “It can’t just be work. It has to make many people excited about it.”

Work on the mural began in December and was spread over six days, with seven to eight hours of painting each day.

From time to time, Joe would come down to the garage and take a look at the progress.

“I would ask him if he wanted me to change anything or if he had any ideas,” Jeanette said. “He would just say, ‘Nope. It looks great.’”

Joe said he’s learned over the years that you have to explain what you want from somebody early on and then back off so as to not cramp his or her style. 

“I wasn’t much help and that was by design,” he said.

All that was important was the mural capture the look and feel of that Kleenex box.

While his tumor has been removed, the cancer could come back at any time.

Joe undergoes chemotherapy for three weeks at a time with one week off. Once a week, he goes to see a physical therapist, and he has begun seeing a psychiatrist.

“If I have to do that and that’s all, then I’m OK with it,” he said. “Every day is a great day, and I have fun.”

To get around, he receives rides from friends and family.

“Where else do you get this type of treatment? I’m spoiled,” he said. “Friends are the most valuable thing you have, and your family.”

In a couple of months, though, Joe won’t need, or want, a driver. He’ll finally have the pleasure of taking his brand-new Shelby GT 500 for a drive. 

For the moment, it has only two miles on it.

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