Greensboro – When Michael Collins saw the customer at Lowe’s fall to the ground, he rushed to the man’s aid.
Collins immediately recognized the signs of a stroke. The man’s speech was ambiguous. He couldn’t answer questions about his name or his pain. He couldn’t move his arms.
Collins, a sales specialist with Lowe’s, was called up as an assistant manager at the Battleground Avenue store where he works. “Get the ambulance here real fast,” Collins recalls, “because we have a guy who’s had a stroke.”
While Collins knew the signs of a stroke, he didn’t know the man who exhibited it on that June day last year.
The local sculptor and painter was Jim Barnhill.
Barnhill is best known for creating the February Memorial at NC A&T where he has taught for 25 years, the General Greene Statue on the City Roundabout and Minerva on the UNCG campus.
He sculpted a bust of Pedro Silva, the longtime North Carolina Shakespeare Festival executive director, at High Point.
People also read…
He created pieces out of Guilford County, and had several other business in place at the time of his stroke on June 23, 2021.
Collins and other Lowe’s employees started working that day. They called 911 and tried to keep Barnhill comfortable until an ambulance arrived to take him to Conn Hospital.
“The thing that was on my mind was that I needed to respond very quickly,” Collins said. “The longer we wait, the worse the conditions and the longer rehabilitation will take.”
Months later, Collins and Barnhill crossed again.
In those 10 months, Barnhill, 66, has come a long way from hospital to home.
He still wears a brace on his right leg. But he progressed from a wheelchair to a walker to walking with a cane.
He does not drive. Others take it out for breakfast and lunch with neighbors and friends weekly.
He can understand what people are saying. But his speech returned slowly and hesitantly.
Although his words ‘yes’, ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are easy to understand, other words can be more difficult.
“None of his mental powers, or his ability to understand or think,” said retired ophthalmologist Dr. Wilson McWilliams, who is married to Barnhill’s sister Catherine. They drive from Pinehurst to share caregiving duties with Barnhill’s longtime partner, Eddie Carpenter, and others.
“I think he knows what he wants to say, but sometimes it just doesn’t come out the way he wants,” McWilliams said.
Barnhill practicing his speech via Zoom with Club Aphasia of The Triad. Led by faculty in Speech-Language Pathology at UNCG, the Aphasia Community Conversational Group caters to those who struggle to understand or formulate language due to brain injury.
Twice a week he goes to Cone Health Neurological Rehabilitation Center for physical therapy with Chloe Gilgannon and Emily Parker.
During one of the last sessions, he walked on the treadmill, slowly climbed up and down a few steps, even coming out with an assist.
“Very nice, Jim,” Gilgannon said after taking a few steps.
He cannot draw with his dominant right hand.
So he taught himself to draw and write with his left hand – which is not easy for many right-handers.
“It’s very inspiring,” said Carpenter, director of artistic and curatorial programs at the Greenhill Center for the Arts of North Carolina at the Greensboro Cultural Center.
Barnhill was not able to sculpt again yet.
When asked if he intended to sculpt again, he answered, “Yes.” Has any of his medical providers told him when? “I don’t know,” Barnhill replied.
Some of his paintings and sculptures—created prior to the stroke—appear in the current downtown gallery in GreenHill. Titled “H20”, it focuses on environmental stewardship.
H2O was originally scheduled to take place two years ago. But the COVID-19 pandemic has put it off for now.
A few days before opening, Barnhill came to Green Hill with Carpenter and Denisa Simmons, one of his caregivers.
Barnhill’s crabapple carved whale, created in 1993, hangs from the ceiling of the Green Hill Gallery.
Two of his paintings – in oil and tar on a marine-grade wood panel – show major environmental disasters.
“yes!” Barnhill says in agreement. He adds, “Big or go home,” slowly pronouncing each of the common words.
One from 2012 depicting the Exxon Valdez oil tanker. It ran aground in 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of oil.
Another from 2013 shows the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, considered the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
How do you feel when his work is presented to the public?
“genius!” Barnhill said and then laughed with the small crowd around him.
“I never looked at art until I met Jim,” Simmons said. “When I walked in here, she was just like him. She’s strong.”
Three days later, Barnhill returned to the gallery’s opening. Listen as Carpenter explains his work to visitors.
His students at A&T haven’t forgotten him either. Friday Barnhill was honored at the Great Art Students Exhibition held at the African American Atelier of the Cultural Center.
Six of Barnhill’s sculptures are now at Carolina Bronze Sculptures in Seagrove, awaiting casting.
The foundry serves artists from all over the world.
Barnhill made the cut in plaster. From here, Carolina Bronze follows a complex set of steps.
He makes plaster casts, then makes wax copies of the originals from the molds.
From wax copies, the pieces will be cast from bronze using the “lost wax” process.
“Jim usually makes his own plaster casts,” said Melissa Walker, co-owner. “But we made this batch because he had a stroke.”
The sculpture will be on display this summer at GreenHill’s “Presence: A Pictorial Survey,” another exhibition that has been postponed from 2020.
Others pushed Barnhill to the foundry. Walker, who owns Carolina Bronze with her husband Ed, watched Barnhill improve.
She describes Barnhill as “an outstanding sculptor” and “a great man”.
“We were shocked to hear that he had had a stroke,” Walker said. “We hope he makes a full recovery.”
The day before Barnhill had his stroke, Carpenter hadn’t noticed anything wrong.
He had recently returned from a sailing trip. They ate dinner together.
And as usual, she reminded him to take his medication on time to control atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder not caused by a heart valve problem. People with atrial fibrillation are more likely to have a stroke.
When Carpenter saw him the next day, Barnhill was in a hospital bed.
He could not move his right side. He could not speak.
“At first, it was very scary,” Carpenter said. “We knew the injury was severe.”
Barnhill had an ischemic stroke, in which there is insufficient blood flow to the brain.
“People with atrial fibrillation are put on anticoagulants to try to prevent a blood clot from forming,” said McWilliams, his brother-in-law. The question was whether he was taking his anticoagulants properly.
Barnhill spent more than a month in intensive care and inpatient treatment before returning home. A bout of pneumonia sent him back to the hospital.
Atrial fibrillation under control. This year, he and Carpenter had a bout of COVID-19.
He resumed drawing while in the hospital.
At home, he was surrounded by the art he created over the years.
He is surrounded by family and friends.
Carpenter, McWilliams, and sisters Catherine McWilliams and Becky Oxholm, caregivers of Hand and Heart and others, helped.
“The only thing that saved Jim and helped in his recovery, was that he was never so bitter,” Carpenter said.
“Jim has always had a way of connecting with people, from the person in charge of the checkout at the grocery store to his students,” Carpenter said. “Many former students remember telling jokes in his studio classes or giving advice when they had a personal problem.”
Family and friends remain grateful to Dr. Katusia de Macedo Rodrigues of Greensboro Radiology, the physician who treated him; Collins and others to help save Barnhill’s life.
Later this year, Barnhill plans to resume teaching at Art Alliance, which offers classes at the Cultural Center. Dates have not yet been confirmed.
He will teach how to create art with the non-dominant hand, as he did in painting.
Several weeks ago, Barnhill returned to Lowe’s.
The 66-year-old Collins who specializes in Lowe’s sales has known him for 19 years.
They hugged and shed some tears.
“He looked at me, and he said, ‘You saved my life,'” Collins said.
Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.