All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for December 2003

Disabled painter doesn't let MS get in the way of his art

December 1, 2003
Ray Gudas
The Herald-Palladium
New Buffalo

Priced anywhere from $100 to $1,000, the paintings of local artist Alex Tomic aren't expensive by contemporary standards. They take on considerably more value, though, considering the special effort it takes to produce them.

Tomic has multiple sclerosis, and there are days when he cannot lift his paint brush or otherwise control his body's movements.

"Sometimes my brush will just go flying across the room, as if someone else is in control of it," Tomic said.

Still, when the demon is at bay, and he's feeling inspired, the results can be impressive.

Largely self-taught, Tomic has a repertoire that ranges from landscapes and seascapes to portraits and florals.

Working with oil paints most of the time, occasionally with pastels, he expresses himself not only on canvas, but also on walls, on house doors, on squares of plywood and, lately, on wooden cutting boards.

"I guess you could say I'm a round peg in a square hole," Tomic said. "I paint whatever I feel."

Someone once observed that, more often than not, life is what happens to you while you're busy trying to accomplish something else. Tomic and his wife, Sherry, can both attest to that.

The life plan the couple worked out early in their marriage about three decades ago involved Tomic taking an early retirement from his job at Amoco Oil in Whiting, Ind., when he became 55 so he could pursue his artistic ambitions full-time.

That was not to be. In 1983 at age 36, Tomic was diagnosed with MS

It was devastating news, but, as Tomic put it: "What can you do? First you get angry, then you accept it and try to adjust to it."

For a strong, athletic and self-described independent person, adjusting wasn't easy. There were times when the anger alone was what kept him going, he said.

MS is a disease of the central nervous system. Its cause is unknown, and there is no cure. Furthermore, its course varies widely, with symptoms that also can include tremors and disturbances in vision and speech.

Drugs sometimes can reduce the severity of the symptoms, but there is no singular treatment for MS patients.

For some of its victims, MS eventually leads to severe physical disabilities. In Tomic's case it has meant losing the ability to walk.

For 12 years he has had to rely on a wheelchair to get around. He uses two; he keeps the second one in the basement, where he does most of his painting.

Strong enough to lift himself out of a chair without assistance, Tomic is able to travel between floors by placing himself into a seated position on the stairs and using his upper body strength to lift (or lower) himself one step at a time.

Worse than the loss of mobility, however, is how MS interferes with his ability to paint.

"If I can work for one or two hours, that's a great day for me," Tomic said. "Some days I have to push myself just to last five minutes."

He does it, though, just as he does his prescribed daily regimen of exercise therapy, even on the days when he doesn't feel like it.

"I don't give up easily," he said.

Having come to terms with his illness, Tomic described its impact on his life as "a voyage of discovery."

"Ultimately, it's made me come to believe more in myself, to discover strengths I never knew I had, both mentally and physically." The strength, he added, "to keep going every day."

Sneaking a glance at his wife, who quit her job with New Buffalo Area Schools two years ago to become his full-time caregiver, Tomic said he often thinks his illness is harder on her than it is on him.

"No it's not!" she shoots back without missing a beat. Her tone is scolding, but in a playful way, and in this and other exchanges between them, the affection the two have for each other is palpable.

Married for 34 years, Sherry and Alex met and began dating while both were in the military, stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Ill.

Sherry, who is from Nebraska, worked at the base as a dental assistant. Alex, who grew up in East Chicago, Ind., was assigned to the base to finish off his obligation to Uncle Sam after his two-year tour of duty in Southeast Asia.

Tomic's wartime experiences did nothing to quell his lifelong love of art, which, according to his mother, first manifested itself when, at age 6, Tomic took his crayons to the underside of the family's kitchen table and created his first masterpiece.

Not long after returning to the Midwest, he signed up for classes at a nearby community college. Painting became his passion, and he pursued it with dedication.

He also pursued Sherry. She recalled an early date when Alex drove up with two still-wet canvases propped up in his car's back seat.

"As long as we were going to be driving around, he figured we might as well make use of the wind to help them dry," she recalled with a chuckle.

In addition to being his wife, friend and caregiver, Sherry is Tomic's biggest fan, and he knows it. That's why he signs every work he creates with both his initials (AMT) and hers (SGT).

While Tomic sells most of his paintings privately, at least a dozen of his works are on display at the new Keller Williams of Southwest Michigan real estate office at 105 N. Whittaker Street in downtown New Buffalo.

Copyright © 2003, The Herald-Palladium