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A lifetime behind the brush: Artist at veterans home reflects on health, work

By Benny Westcott
Lebanon Local

The paintings that adorn Bruce Freeman’s room at the Edward C. Allworth Veterans Home in Lebanon are testimonies to the 77-year-old’s abilities despite his disability.
Whether they depict a man playing a guitar, a dog, an orchestra, or a flower-filled vase, these beautiful creations serve an important purpose as their creator lives through soreness from three back surgeries, neck and foot surgeries and a replaced knee.

BRUCE FREEMAN’S workspace in his room.

“If you paint and concentrate on what you’re doing, the pain is absorbed by the canvas,” he said. “So you can get a lot of pain relief by concentrating on what you’re doing.”
Freeman had been in the U.S. Navy for 2½ years during his 20s when he hurt his back and left knee during an exercise called Night Compass at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. That incident forced him out of the service and saddled him with medical issues that would increase in severity.
“That’s stuck with me,” he said. “It’s just gotten worse over the years.”
In 2014, he was retired and living in Newberg with his wife, Sharon, when doctors at a Veterans Affairs Portland Health Care facility told him he needed a series of back surgeries that local doctors couldn’t perform.
So he went to San Francisco for the procedures, staying at Veterans Home of California – Yountville during his surgery and rehab period, which took almost six years. The couple described the 2,500-resident facility’s atmosphere as “institutionalized.”
“It was pretty much you’re on your own unless you have to call somebody to come and help you,” Sharon said. “They did the best they could, but it was giant, so he got very little personal attention unless he called somebody and said ‘help.’”
Bruce and his wife returned briefly to Newberg, where they realized he needed more assistance. He fell sometimes and struggled to keep track of his medications. So the couple set out to find the right fit for Bruce’s next landing spot.
“We checked a lot of other places around here,” Sharon said. “They either want you to care for yourself more than they care for you, or it’s the other way around — you’re in bed all day, doing nothing. So there’s not a lot of places in the state of Oregon that are specifically suited to that need, where he’s still independent enough to do some things, but he needs a lot of help.”
But the Edward C. Allworth Veterans Home in Lebanon fit the bill, and Bruce made the move in April 2022. Sharon remains at the couple’s Newberg home but visits her husband often.
“They’ve pretty much thought out everything that can help us make this place like home,” Bruce said of the local facility. “They took everything that they could find in other VA facilities, negative and positive. The positives they put into this place, and the negatives they took out. There’s not a whole lot to complain about here.”
“If there’s something that they haven’t thought of or that is causing a problem, they’re willing to work with us on it and come to a resolution,” he added.
Sharon echoed that praise.
“The thing that I love is that they pay attention to each person’s needs,” she said. “With Bruce, his need was not only to be a little bit more social, but to be able to do his artwork. And they were gracious enough to let him set up his easel in there and paint. It’s allowed him to do the things he loved doing while having to live in a facility rather than here at home.”
Sharon said that government veterans’ facilities are usually larger but less personal and more institutional than Lebanon’s.
“This is more like a home,” she said, noting the fireplaces and a kitchen. “It’s really a neat place.”
The Edward C. Allworth has four units, Sharon noted, each with only 14 rooms, which “is great, because everybody gets pretty personal attention there.” She described its atmosphere as more family-like compared to other veterans’ homes, especially considering Bruce’s previous experience in California.
“If I were to compare the two,” she said, “there’s no comparison whatsoever.”
And, importantly, Bruce is allowed to paint in his room, with his easel only a short distance from his bed.
“Most places would say, ‘We really don’t have the room for you to do that,’” Sharon said. “They would not allow it.”
Not only could Bruce indulge his muse, but Edward C. Allworth staff also helped set up and promote an art exhibit about two months ago that featured his work. He ended up selling five items and said the exhibition turned out much better than he’d ever dreamed. His pieces sold from $400 to $1,400. Another exhibit is scheduled for Saturday, April 22.
Bruce has been an artist since his Paola, Kansas, youth, when he busted out a big box of crayons and made art with his neighbor from across the street. The two would draw on typing paper they took from Bruce’s mom Nettie, a writer.
“As we got older, our drawings got more sophisticated,” Bruce said. “I never lost the joy of drawing at all.”
Nettie eventually hired an artist to visit every Wednesday and teach her young son about drawing in exchange for a silver dollar.
This arrangement would continue until the family moved to Navasota, Texas, when Bruce was in sixth grade. He would continue to work on his art, graduating from Navasota High School in 1964. He moved on to Texas Tech, working for three years on a pre-med track and taking art classes before dropping out to enlist in the Navy.
“The Navy saved my life I think,” he recalled. “I was out of control, a wild kid. But it straightened me out. I loved being in the Navy.”
After his service, he became creative director for San Diego’s Robert Keith & Co., which made giant inflatable products and characters. He stayed there for five years, then spent 13 as publications manager for the University of California San Diego.
He later moved to Texas, serving one year as manager of publications for the University of Texas Galveston before getting a job at Mother Frances Hospital in the city of Tyler, teaching staff how to use software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.
Following that, he worked as publications manager for the faith-based organization, Leadership Network. When the company moved to Dallas, he stayed behind in Tyler and freelanced before becoming publications manager for the University of Texas Tyler’s medical branch, where he would stay for about two years.
That’s when Sharon, who Bruce married in 1993, decided to get a job in Portland, so the couple bought a house in Newberg. Bruce retired that same year, 2003.
Looking back on his life, he speculated that his attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder led him to pursue art.
“Because I had ADHD, I think I gravitated toward visual, rather than the printed word and things like that,” he said. “I think that’s what led me into the visual arts as opposed to anything else.”
One of the things he most appreciates about art is the ability to set a scene.
“It’s kind of like being God,” he said. “You control everything that you’re drawing. You add and detract things and change things around. That’s pretty much what interested me in being an artist.”
After all these years, the joy of putting paint to paper has yet to subside. When asked how he felt while creating, he said, “Ecstatic. It’s really wondrous what I live and how I live when I’m painting. It’s just a marvelous sensation.”