Evolution of an artist

Photo by Joe Bellacomo

Photo by Joe Bellacomo

ALBANY, Ga. -- In early 1994, just a few years after beginning an amazing journey that would gain him recognition as one of North America's premier wildlife artists, David Lanier's career nearly ended just as it was taking off.

After graduating in 1985 from the renowned Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Fla., Lanier worked as a commercial artist before striking out on his own in 1990.

The next year he produced back-to-back prints for Quail Unlimited and Georgia's Ducks Unlimited. The commercial success of those two prints provided the springboard for a lucrative career.

But just three years later, at the age of 32, Lanier's promising career came to a screeching halt.

"I had just finished a game of racquetball and had gone out for a run," Lanier recalled recently. "All of a sudden my legs just gave out under me. I could barely make the walk back home."

Things got worse the next day.

"I woke up the next morning, and my mouth was dry; it felt like I had a mouth stuffed full of cotton balls," Lanier said. "My eyes were dry, and every time I blinked it felt like there was soap and sand mixed into my eyes. The pain was almost unbearable.

"I was weak and had absolutely no energy."

Several doctors told Lanier he had all the symptoms of Sjogren's Syndrome.

Sjogren's Syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disease in which a person's white blood cells attack their moisture-producing glands. Although the hallmark symptoms are dry eyes and dry mouth, Sjogren's also causes serious complications throughout the entire body.

Today, as many as 4 million Americans, the majority women, are living with this disease.

Trips to Emory University and the Mayo Clinic yielded few answers for Lanier.

"The doctors said the damage to my eyes would be permanent, all my

teeth were going to fall out, I would never recover and that there was no cure or treatment other than to help alleviate the pain." Lanier said. "But none of them ever definitively told me I had Sjogren's either. It was very frustrating.

"I hardly painted at all for well over a year. I was extremely weak physically. I was putting eye drops in literally every two minutes," he said. "I would put salve into my eyes every day, but that left me unable to see. I asked God to help me to be able to see my kids grow up and to allow me to paint the beauty of his world."

A member of Sherwood Baptist Church at the time, prayer cards started pouring in not only from Sherwood but from many area churches. Each week brought new cards, and each night Lanier followed the same routine.

"I would place the cards all around my pillow every night and I would pray -- hard -- to God each night to help me," Lanier said.

Then almost as suddenly as his symptoms appeared, they started to disappear.

"It basically began clearing up," Lanier recalled. "I can't tell you why, but I am absolutely certain God played a hand in it. The whole experience left me with a deeper faith and a stronger belief in the power of prayer.

"It changed me from being a selfish person to a more sensitive person."

Fifteen years later, Lanier is as busy as ever, though the experience left him unable to perform strenuous exercise and with occasional bouts of weakness.

Just last week he finished his largest piece to date, a 5-foot by 7-foot painting titled "Hunting Quail Ridge." It is destined to hang over a fireplace in a hunting lodge in Louisville, Miss.

He has evolved over the years, learning and perfecting his art along the way.

"I've begun to return to my roots," Lanier, 48, said. "I'm working a little larger and working a little more quickly. I'm not as obsessed with detail as much as when I was younger. I worry more now about lighting and color. I see things more quickly now; I can visit a site and see five paintings in one hour where it used to take me a whole day.

"There is not a lot of uncertainty now when I paint. I still make mistakes, but not like I did 10 years ago."

Today Lanier says he is concentrating more on his home turf.

"I want to do some landscapes of the area," Lanier said. "There are some really beautiful scenes around the Flint River that most people don't see other than passing over on a bridge."

And where does he see himself in 10 years?

"Hopefully, I will be painting with bigger and broader brush strokes. I want to be painting faster and more loosely," Lanier said. "Maybe I'll teach a few classes. I feel more confident now, and I think I'd like to do a couple of workshops a year."

At which point Lanier's amazing journey would have come full circle.