A show of dexterity

Right-hander’s brush strokes, 85, not stopped by broken right wrist

Painting No. 1 was easy.

Sometime around her 84th birthday last March, Elsie Dresch sat down at her easel in the corner of her cluttered home studio near Chastain Park and turned out “Brookwood Gardens.” The 3-by-4-foot oil painting of autumn-hued trees casting shadows was so good it led her to an even better idea: To celebrate her 85th birthday with a one-woman show, featuring 85 new paintings.

And so, quickly along came Painting No. 2, followed closely by Nos. 3 and 4 and then so many more that it ultimately became hard for Dresch to remember the precise order in which she painted them all. But not the inspiration behind each, nor the different techniques she used to paint them.

Indeed, when the whole delightfully madcap scheme threatened to come screeching to a halt just one painting shy of Painting No. 85, it wasn’t because Dresch was running out of ideas. Or even time.

She was suddenly running out of hands.

“I went into the pantry to get a can of broth and, when I came out, I tripped,” said Dresch, recalling the events of mid-January, when she was making beef burgundy to serve to the owners of the Watson Gallery on 14th Street, where her solo show opens March 27th. “The beef was sizzling in the background, and I was thinking of Christopher Reeve: You know, ‘Please don’t let me have a broken back.’”

Fortunately, she’d only broken her right wrist.

Unfortunately, she’s right-handed.

Hmm, not so fast. Like a strikeout artist who has to switch pitching arms late in the decisive game of the World Series, Dresch wound up painting No. 85 with her left hand. An 18-by-24-inch landscape that’s coincidentally — but quite appropriately — titled “Phenomenon,” it was only the second painting she’d ever done left-handed. The first: An art school exercise some 70 years ago, back in her native Philadelphia.

“It’s remarkable,” Brett Osborn, associate dean of fine arts at SCAD Atlanta, observed of Dresch’s productivity and flexibility, in every sense of the word. “She is really, I would say, a die-hard painter. It demonstrates such passion and commitment to the medium.”

It also puts Dresch, a widowed painting teacher and author whose larger works can sell for upward of $3,500, squarely in the tradition of some of history’s greatest painters who had to play hurt. Goya went deaf midway through his brilliant portraiture career. Monet developed cataracts, but continued painting water lilies. Most notably, Van Gogh’s astonishing, swirly night skies and wheat fields emerged during a period when he was several bristles shy of a full paintbrush, psychologically speaking.

But losing use of your dominant hand is another matter entirely, especially coming so close to the opening of an important show. Most artists who found themselves in Dresch’s position probably would have slipped one of their slightly older works in as No. 85, figuring few people would ever know the difference.

“I said, ‘Take something of yours off your walls and be done with it,’” said Janet Mozley, Dresch’s daughter and a fellow painter, who describes her mother as the “most determined” person she’s ever met. “I don’t know why I even said that, because I knew she’d figure something else out.”

She comes by it naturally. Her Italian immigrant mother had a favorite saying that roughly translated to “Get over it.”

Left behind to live with her in-laws when her carpenter husband went to America on what was supposed to be temporary business, Mariannina DiNardo set out to join him in Philadelphia before sending the letter telling him she was coming. Later on, her fondest dream was that their three daughters would all get jobs in offices instead of factories.

Elsie, who’d begun taking art classes at 13, dutifully became a secretary for the War Department after high school. When it took her five tries to type a letter, she wandered across the room and talked her way into a job hand printing charts and signs.

She married Fred Dresch, a scaffolding company executive, and they moved to Baltimore, where she taught painting. In 1965, she obtained her first professional commission — $35 from a neighbor who wanted a clown painting for over the bar in the den.

She completed it by studying her own face in a mirror and painting a self-portrait with clown-ly detailing. Nearly 45 years later, Dresch was similarly creative when she approached the Watson Gallery, which has represented her for years, with her idea for the show. The gallery had never before hosted a one-artist exhibition. Like many galleries, it prefers group shows over solo exhibitions, which are expensive and time-consuming to mount and can cause friction among its other artists.

Dresch told Rebekah Watson, who owns the gallery with her husband, Carey, “If someone else asks for their own show, say, ‘You can. On your 85th birthday.’”

Among the Watson Gallery’s 25 artists, Dresch annually ranks in the top three in sales. As a source of inspiration, she’s truly priceless, Rebekah Watson said weeks before the show’s opening, when the gallery’s work areas already had begun filling up with dozens of new watercolors, oils and pastels by the octogenarian.

“I have never known anyone like Elsie,” said Watson. “There was no way we would not do her solo show.”

But would it be a solo show with an asterisk?

With Dresch’s right hand in a cast, it was only logical to wonder if she’d have to stop after Painting No. 84, an ambitious, three-paneled, 6-by-4-foot landscape titled “York River Marsh.” Logical, but highly improbable, according to friend Donna Parker, who said Dresch was the first person to welcome her to the neighborhood when she moved onto the street over two decades ago. Almost in the next breath, Dresch mentioned she was a painter and asked if she could cut a bit of her new neighbor’s crepe myrtle to use as subject matter.

“Elsie likes to say that gremlins come into her studio at night and fix her paintings,” said Parker, part of a group of six women jokingly known as the Different Strokes, who meet to paint and socialize over increasingly long lunches at Dresch’s house most Fridays. “I was counting on the gremlins to get her through this.”

It didn’t just happen by magic, of course. It took Dresch, who sometimes spends 10 to 12 hours working in her studio, three separate sessions over the course of a week to complete “Phenomenon.” She spent the first one figuring out how to hold the paint brush that had almost become an extension of her body after 70 years, but now felt slightly unfamiliar in her left hand. The end result was a boldly realized painting of rays of light beaming onto trees that, at least to the untrained eye, looked just as good as anything the longtime professional had done right-handed.

In some ways, what happened could end up making Dresch an even better painter, said SCAD’s Osborn.

“Painting exists in the mind,” said Osborn, 46, who hasn’t seen Dresch’s work, but is himself an oil painter whose work frequently appears in shows. “Dexterity would be a hurdle she’d have to overcome at first, but in terms of outcome, it would actually be fresher. Because she’s not getting to use the same old bag of tricks all experienced painters have. Having to paint with the other hand may have spurred and energized her in new ways creatively.”

But it hasn’t inspired her to new heights of greed: Dresch refuses to charge more for a much rarer left-handed painting. But she has kept fiddling with the solo show’s lineup, looking for the perfect blend of styles, mediums and subjects to attract patrons/potential buyers to the show, which will run through May 22. Full disclosure: She ultimately decided to include several slightly older paintings, one a lovely still-life — white flowers she received when her son, Atlanta filmmaker Fred Dresch, died of pancreatic cancer at age 52 in 2003. It’s never been exhibited before and isn’t for sale.

Another late addition is “Syndrome of Fog,” another left-handed painting she finished two weeks ago. Dresch liked it so much, she ended up giving one of her 83 right-handed paintings the hook. Meaning — warm up the asterisk! — Dresch actually wound up doing 86 new paintings for her 85th birthday show.

Then again, who’s counting?