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EASY MAGAZINE: Strokes of luck

Gercine Carter

EASY MAGAZINE: Strokes of luck

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Janice Sylvia Brock felt she was duty-bound to share her story to give encouragement to parents of children suffering from disabilities or illness.
With no strength in the fingertips of her crippled hands, she resorted to using the rubber end of a pencil to painstakingly tap out every letter of the 52 000 words it took to record My Life On Canvas, which she recently launched in Barbados, her adopted second home. In it she details a life of pain, disability and some heartbreak, buttressed by her art and mountains of faith and courage.
“I started writing the book in 1987 because I have a lot to say,” the Manchester-born Brock told EASY magazine.  For the past 20 years she tapped out the manuscript on the keys of a Golf Ball typewriter, a gift from a friend, only switching to the computer about five years ago.
Standing just under five feet, the petite blonde walks with a rocking gait. She speaks softly, her engaging smile enveloping a room, masking evidence of her reality: “I live with pain every day of my life.”
Brock is a victim of the crippling Stills disease, an arthritic condition which struck at age ten when the active, athletic child began feeling very lethargic, grew tired constantly, suffered severe pain in her hands and found it difficult to open doors.  Her anxious parents feared something was seriously wrong. Brock’s rapid deterioration saw her being reduced to being a patient laid up in Pendlebury Hospital in north-west England.
Confined to a room in the Victorian institution, a single window high on the wall her only contact with the outside world, she would spent one and a half years  “feeling like a prisoner” away from family, while puzzled doctors sought to identify her illness and treat it. She could not walk, was not allowed to sit up and spend several weeks on her back because doctors wrongly thought she had a heart condition. Initially they also treated her for a calcium deficiency.
She grew thin, her weight dropping to three and a half stone and she lost the ability to feed herself.  But beside the physical pain she was enduring, the “biggest wrench of all” for this little girl was being separated from her family.
In her loneliness she prayed for “a special gift”, prayers that were answered at age 13 when out of the blue she asked the nurses one day for paints and brushes and “they strapped a paint brush to my left hand because I could not use the right and I began painting”.
From that first primitive painting of a Hawaiian girl, the name Janice Sylvia Brock is  now known all over the world, appearing in prominent places like the White House where two of her oil paintings hang; in affluent homes and art collections and in both her Brocklands Gallery in St James and her studio in Cheshire, England. The number of paintings she has been able toproduce is remarkable for someone who can barely hold the paint brush and who reflected “in the early days my joints were so flared up I did not at one stage think I would survive.”
She credits her survival however to a strong faith in God. “I find that life is a God-given gift and my faith in God has helped me through some very challenging times in my life.
”I live with pain every day of my life. I can cope quite well but sometimes I go over the pain barrier and then I can’t cope so then I take painkillers.”
Lots of prescription drugs and “many years of struggling” as well as the 19 knee replacements after each of which she has had to learn to walk again, have also contributed to her ability to cope. Brock laughed as she pointed to her legs saying, “I am all steel and cement. I have no bone left in my legs.”
She raves about finding Barbados’ sunshine “very good for my health” and never stops thanking a Barbadian–born administrator whom she befriended while undergoing voluntary art therapy at the British psychiatric hospital he headed, for suggesting coming here more than 20 years ago.
Gratefully she said, “I am much better here than in Britain health wise” and added,  “I always think of myself as a Barbadian. It is a spiritual island and since I settled in Barbados I have lots of family now” – family like her Barbadian housekeeper Serita.
“I am more Barbadian than I am English because I have a full life here and the doctors here are incredible and super-efficient.”
But the six months of the year she spends here are not only devoted to her art and therapeutic rehabilitation. She has also immersed herself in charity work, raising “lots of funds” for disabled children over the years.
“I must be reaching half a million now” she said with a hint of satisfaction,  referring to money raised through donation of her paintings. “I know how hard it is being disabled as a child and how hard it is for the parents. What Barbados has given me I like to give back,” Brock said.
One of her paintings donated to a charity auction here raised over US$200 000.  All the money went towards building the Sunshine Village for disabled children through the Sandy Lane Charitable Trust which she has supported for many years.
Just recently another Brock piece was sold in live auction at a fundraiser for the Jenna Trust, a Barbados charity that supports children with brain injuries.
Every Brock painting tells a story and her figures are redolent of the kind of sensuality and voluptuousness of the Caribbean woman, in particular the Caribbean “botsy”. “I love botsies” she exclaimed with a girlish giggle – “wholesome botsies” like those painted on her huge canvas, Three Bottoms On A Bench, which graces the walls of a Paris home for which she confessed: “I have never used so much oil paint in all my life.”
“People say I am a walking miracle. I am like the cat with nine lives. I keep bouncing back. I nearly died in my early 20s from kidney failure and I was given five years to live,” she said, as she related her defiance of the doctor who wanted to put her back on the steroids she detested.
“I told him no, God is going to heal me. He was so disgusted with me he stormed off down the ward having said to me ‘you silly little girl, you will be dead in five years’.”
Prayer remains her lifeline. “To me God is very healing,” said the born-again Christian. With the extensive travelling she does, needing so much help because of her physical limitations, she said “I travel with God. I pray every day and ask God to put me in the right place at the right time.”
With such a depth of faith she even takes the occasional gamble like the time she ventured to abseil down a 100-foot cliff only to find herself dangling upside-down stuck on the side, to be helped by alert handlers.  It was “a petrifying experience but exhilarating at the same time” for a woman who displays an indomitable spirit. She still thanks God that “I had hips and a botsy which kept me in the harness.”
“My parents had hoped in their heart that I was going to do something with my life that was very important not just for me but certainly for them to believe that I had a future,” Brock said.
Today they can rest assured their daughter has indeed found fulfilment as an artist, surviving well beyond expectation. “I am a miracle because you normally die before you are thirty years of age with this disease but I am still here many years later,” said the artist who returns to Britain at the end of April before taking off again to France for another artistic engagement.