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Injury forces Woodford County artist to finish veterans' mural with his 'goofy' hand

As Veterans Day approached, Versailles artist Stephen Sawyer was forced to finish a mural on the wall of American Legion Post 67 with his right hand, which was the wrong one for him.
John McGary
As Veterans Day approached, Versailles artist Stephen Sawyer was forced to finish a mural on the wall of American Legion Post 67 with his right hand, which was the wrong one for him.

In the middle of my September 26th conversation with artist Stephen Sawyer just off South Main Street in downtown Versailles, I asked this question:

“What are some of the challenges that someone painting this big a mural faces, among other things, you’ve got to be on a ladder some of the time?”

“Oh, no ladder. ladders are too dangerous. I have a friend that has a bucket truck. And yeah, I mean, just two days ago, I was in the bucket truck.”

In the Today’s Interview that aired the next week, Sawyer discussed his latest downtown mural -- the fourth in the last few years. On the south wall of American Legion Post 67, seven men and women, accompanied by a German Shepherd, represent our nation’s veterans. He was nearly finished. Two days later, he was wondering whether his art career might be finished.

“Well, I never considered myself a prophet, but apparently I am. So I ended up getting on a short ladder to fix an area for one of the veterans noses and I lost my balance because the ladder was too short. And I had nothing to grab on to as I was going down. So I shattered my, about half my wrist and of my painting hand.”

“When I hit I, I thought, ‘Oh god, I think I broke my wrist and I looked at it almost passed out looking at it. So it was numb. So I yanked it back in place. Kinda. Yeah, it was pretty gross even yank it back in place. It was so out of place. The hardest part was actually loading up my truck and driving my big four-wheel manual transmission truck over to the art studio to park it. Before I did, I called Cindy. I said, I need your help. I fell off the ladder. And then I hung up.”

Cindy Sawyer is his wife. Six days later, Stephen Sawyer had surgery on his left wrist – the one he paints and writes with – and was given the first of two casts. He says sometimes, it still feels like a hot knife is in there. But Veterans Day was approaching, and Sawyer was determined to finish the mural. He resumed work October 27, and a week later, I revisited the scene of the fall. This time, Sawyer was in the bucket of longtime friend Kenny Witten’s bucket truck – painting faces with his right hand, which is the wrong one for him.

“It's fascinating. I'm really more excited than I ever anticipated. Because I've never had to use my right hand before I've done it. Kind of as a joke, right? Do a few brushstrokes in on a painting. But it was more like it was for fun. This is out of necessity and and so I'm really grateful that that my right hand is all except for the years of experiences just as competent as my left hand so well. I mean, those first floor look pretty great, don't they? Yeah, that's what's goofy hand. And that was goofy hand. This is goofy hand.”

“I must say your sense of humor is intact.”

“Why not? Why not? Life's hard. You know, we all have different challenges that we all have to deal with. And most of them are unexpected and it could have been worse. I could have had a concussion. I could have broken my hip. I mean, broke my elbow. God that would have been awful. I mean, there's so it's okay. I don't I'm not happy that happened, but it's going to be okay.”

Sawyer said he faces at least one more surgery, months down the road, and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever regain the full use of his left hand. But on that day, he smiled as easily as ever – and bucket truck owner Kenny Witten said he’s proud of his friend.

“I'm tickled to death. I'm so amazed that he can paint with his right hand. I just, it blows my mind.”

“Yeah. So did you tell him no more ladders?”

“Yeah. Oh, yeah. His wife and I have made it very clear that he's not to get on the ladder again.”

Saturday, the mural was dedicated, then American Legion members held their annual Veterans Day fish fry. Sawyer said the fish was good – even though he had to eat it with his goofy hand.

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John McGary is a Lexington native and Navy veteran with three decades of radio, television and newspaper experience.
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