Saturday, Dec 20, 2014

Hill: Sculptor offers lessons from tragedy

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If this story were made into a movie, it would be classified as a melodrama if not a tragedy.

A celebrated Florida sculptor who never thought he would retire and at 64 should have years ahead of him to work is afflicted with a rare and vicious disease related to Parkinson’s.

Progressive Supranuclear Palsy saps his ability to do much of anything, particularly the art he loves.

His wife of 40 years, an artist in her own right, is devoted to his care, rarely able to work her miracles on fabric that she turns into amazing three-dimensional figures.

She is loving and caring. He reciprocates as much as he can. But he’s frustrated. Talking is difficult. His balance is off. Walking unaided often leads to falls. His sight is impacted.

So creating outsized armadillos, birds, lizards, fireflies, alligators and a host of enchanting mythical creatures by welding together huge pieces of heavy, awkward metal is impossible.

Even searching for scrap that becomes his media — car bumpers, rusted lawn mowers, farm tools, license plates, old vehicle parts, springs large and small — is difficult.

So he does what he can, crudely drawing with an art application on an iPad.

It’s an outlet, he says. A small one.

Occasionally, a friend and neighbor, Mak Kvam, follows the artist’s gestures and fires one piece of metal to another until a creature is born.

***

But this isn’t a movie. The director won’t yell “cut” and the actors won’t resume their normal lives.

This is reality for Paul Eppling.

It’s what he and his wife, Sandy, face every day.

The disease came on about 18 months ago and affected his vision first. It took a while for an accurate diagnosis. When it came, its rarity wasn’t good news.

There is no cure for PSP and the drugs that often work on Parkinson’s patients often don’t work on PSP.

You’ve likely seen Eppling’s work. His Security Lizard sits on the roof and guards the St. Petersburg Police Department’s garage just east of where I-275 crosses over Fifth Avenue North.

Sandy said you can see the lizard on Google Earth. Sure enough, you can.

Boyd Hill Nature Trail is also home to Eppling works, including several huge armadillos. A number of schools in the county also boast Eppling sculptures, as do the residences of many private collectors.

The couple has joined forces on a number of creations, including designing sets for American Stage, which led to an adventure.

During a run of Shakespeare in the Park, Gary Propper, business manager for the comedian Gallagher, saw the stage designs and invited the couple to come to Los Angeles to build props for the slapstick funnyman known for smashing watermelons on stage.

They went, had a great time, made some money and contacts and returned to St. Petersburg, where they have remained except for summers spent in Frazee, Minn., on a family farm.

***

Sandy is from Minnesota, but she was raised in Largo and graduated from Largo High School. Paul was born in New Orleans and raised in Tennessee.

He came to Florida to study at Florida Presbyterian College, now Eckerd College.

The couple met there.

They live in their own little slice of heaven in southern St. Petersburg, in a house Paul bought after graduating from FPC.

He bought a place because he couldn’t find a rental that would allow him to do welding.

The yard is lush with plants — and some of Paul’s creatures.

These days he spends a lot of time with physical therapists who help him work on range of motion, strength, balance and speech and swallowing therapy.

He is frustrated by what he can’t do — besides his beloved work.

“I can’t even get up on the roof” to repair damage, he says with what is certainly a grin.

When I ask if he has a message he wants me to convey, he nods yes.

It’s simple.

Do it now — whatever it is — while you can. Don’t delay. Don’t wait.

You never know what’s going to happen.

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