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Painting is both passion and therapy after Bryan teacher becomes paraplegic

Published: Nov. 30, 2020 at 9:56 AM CST
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BRYAN, Texas (KBTX) - Already in elementary school, Kathyna Hatla knew she loved drawing. Soon, she picked up oil painting, too.

“Watched some tutorials online; watched some Bob Ross on Saturday mornings,” said Hatla. “Just kind of by trial and error figured it out.”

The self-taught painter and full-time teacher enjoyed the hobby until one day in April 1999 changed almost everything.

“I was just out getting stuff for the kids’ Easter baskets, and I was just extremely fatigued… By that afternoon I was in the emergency room and I couldn’t stand up,” said Hatla. “They ran a whole bunch of tests on me, and everything was coming back negative, negative, negative.”

Hatla says the neurologist ended up diagnosing her with idiopathic transverse myelitis, meaning an unknown virus struck her body, leaving lesions on her spinal cord on her neck.

“So everything below that was scrambled,” said Hatla.

After five months of physical therapy, Hatla was back at work teaching. However, when she tried to pick up a paintbrush for the first time, “I kind of gave up on it,” she said. “I was probably at my weakest then, and I just couldn’t translate what I was thinking onto the paper.”

Hatla was adjusting to using a motorized wheelchair and having partial use of just one hand. Furthermore, chronic pain and decreased endurance made it difficult to focus on her art the way she once had. Plus, facing a lifestyle change—to say the least—her mental health had to readjust, too.

“The best I can figure it, I went through some kind of depression,” said Hatla.

Hatla’s pieces, including some partially finished canvases, went into the closet—for six years.

Finally, at her daughter Valarie Hatla O’Shea’s encouragement, Hatla gave her passion for painting another go.

“I don’t know if you’d call it stubborn or perseverant, but I said, I’m going to do something else with my life besides just sit here and exist like this,” said Hatla.

Hatla began again, and while the work was at times frustrating, it was also therapeutic.

“For years I felt like I was out in space just floating in the dark somewhere,” said Hatla. “You know the saying, ‘There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.’ So I tried to aspire to attaining that light or even being part of the light for other people.”

Hatla is clear: in these last 15 years, she has painted for herself. However, in 2020, family convinced her to show her work publicly for the first time, and the Arts Council of the Brazos Valley offered Hatla a contract for a solo show at the gallery in College Station.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Hatla with a laugh.

Because Hatla’s process is necessarily slow and deliberate, the 20 or so works on display at the ACBV represent her lifetime of work, both before and after she was paralyzed.

Pieces like “Emergence” hold special meaning to Hatla regarding her journey to recovery. She began the painting soon after her illness, leaving it unfinished for 20 years.

“To some people that looks like a path going in, but I’m thinking it’s a path coming out of the woods—coming from dark shadows out toward the dappled light,” said Hatla.

Each of the paintings, Hatla eventually realized, plays with and features light. It’s just one reason why she named her exhibit “Pursuit of Light.”

“It’s not just limited to people who are disabled,” said Hatla. “It could be anybody going through a difficult time in their life. Hang in there, and take things one step at a time. And look for help.”

Kathyna Hatla’s “Pursuit of Light” exhibit is on display now at the Arts Council of the Brazos Valley through Feb. 20, 2021. ACBV is located at 4180 Texas 6 Frontage Road, College Station.

Join a virtual opening reception with the artist on Dec. 3, 6-7 p.m. on the ACBV Facebook page.

Follow Kathyna Hatla’s work on her official website.

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