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Painting a Better World

Artist/activist turns 70, recalls civil rights struggle

By Gail Silver · June 29th, 2011 · News

Mary Ann Lederer’s story has a bright line down the middle: Before she was shot in the back at age 35, and since then as she turns 70 on July 4 and marks half her life in a wheelchair. The darkness of her story is contrasted by vivid splashes of color in paintings seen all over Cincinnati; folksy celebrations of flowers, animals and people in harmonious pastoral settings.

Lederer’s is a tale of surviving and thriving, told too little except among fans of her art, of her teachings on diet, nutrition and the health practices she says saved her life and fans of an activism that began in the 1960s when she was one of Cincinnati’s early civil rights promoters. That activism continues today, evolved through wheelchair wisdom to include compassion for the planet and all life on it.

In 1961 Lederer was 20 and working toward a sociology degree at the University of Cincinnati. She was also part of a small local team that was working to bring Cincinnati into compliance with civil rights laws as well as moral codes.

“The business owners we met with were terrified,” Lederer says. “They thought their businesses would be destroyed,” if they had to serve black people in their restaurant, hire someone black at the cash register, or let everyone swim in the pool. “You could literally see them trembling.”

When a breakthrough came — a Lazarus department store was the first of its kind in Cincinnati to hire a black person as a cashier serving both white and black customers — Lederer and fellow activists made the rounds to every department store, as well as all public places.

Pursuing a master’s degree in community planning seemed a way to expand her impact on the city she was serving, and Lederer completed UC’s two-year program.

In September 1976 Lederer was awakened by an intruder in her house, shot twice in the back and left unconscious.

“When I came to at the hospital, half of my body felt like cement,” she says. “They told me, ‘You’ve been shot, you’re a paraplegic.’ ”

Lederer figured she’d be permanently housebound. She had taken one painting class at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and had doodled all through high school and college and decided she would paint.

Lederer wasn’t housebound, though; during a year-long recovery she learned how to take care of herself, including getting in and out of the car, “and then I just wanted to run all over town.”

Her first years in the wheelchair actually were fun, Lederer recalls.

“I learned to jump curbs and dance on my back wheels.”

She became involved in the disability movement and found work at the University of Cincinnati.

Her assignment was to do whatever it took to help handicapped students in those pre-American Disabilities Act times.

Anytime Lederer had a setback, out came the paintbrush. She’d paint people in wheelchairs doing ordinary things: a wheelchair Santa Claus, a game of wheelchair basketball, a portrait of a wheelchair-bound athlete who was a finalist in the Boston Marathon.

“I wanted to show handicapped people thriving and having fun,” she says.

Within five years, however, her body was crumbling. Lederer researched how to get her health back through nutrition and lifestyle, and her painting evolved accordingly.

“Everything positive is what you have to tune into — beautiful scenery, peaceful settings, people in gardens or eating healthy foods,” she says.

But the deterioration continued. She saw dozens of doctors but nothing stopped the decline.

“I couldn’t sneeze without breaking a rib,” she says. “My hip broke, my leg broke, most of my ribs broke, my spine began to bend and I could barely sit up.”

Breathing became difficult. Twenty-five years ago, Lederer wrote a will and prepared to die.

Then she met Dr. Irene Barbasch.

“She was a naturopath doctor, osteopath and chiropractor who believed that her job was to teach her patients how to be their own doctors,” Lederer says.

For the next 20 years, Barbasch taught Lederer during weekly visits to her patient’s home and countless hours on the phone. Among Barbasch’s nutritional teachings: eat an almost all plant-based diet, whole foods and no processed or sugary foods. There was juicing, supervised fasting and exercise programs.

“It was all about living and eating in harmony with nature,” Lederer says.

As Lederer’s health improved, she became involved with EarthSave Cincinnati, now called VeganEarth. Her purpose: To share what she was learning from Barbasch and to learn more about the environment, health and animals.

“I learned about the magic between people and animals, how innately intelligent animals are and their sophisticated communications,” she says. Birds and animals began completing the harmonious scenes in Lederer’s paintings. Lederer confesses she first tried to stop eating animals in order to not upset the people she was learning from. But soon, shocked to learn how animals are treated in the food production system, she became motivated by compassion.

“It became about the animals; how much they feel and suffer,” she says.

Lederer began planning the organization’s potluck dinners, including bringing in nationally known speakers. One was Howard Lyman, the former cattle rancher whose appearance on Oprah inspired Oprah Winfrey to proclaim she was “stopped cold” from ever eating another hamburger.

Irene Barbasch died in 2008, 22 years from the day she met Lederer. Lederer has a hard time sitting up these days, to paint or even go out. Her paintings and prints show up at fundraisers, Findlay Market, in people’s work cubicles and homes.

Now Lederer hopes to stick around long enough to see the same kind of progress in the environmental, nutrition and animal advocacy movements as has occurred in civil rights. Lederer, who is white, recalls when people told her, “Why don’t you go back to Africa?” when she was fighting for civil rights.

“And someday they won’t scoff at the idea that animals also have the right not to suffer,” she adds.

In fact, she believes the interconnected animal-human-earth movement is the most exciting trend happening today.

“I believe we can change our own health, our relationship with and treatment of animals and our impact on the environment, if enough people want to,” she says.

“A Vegetable Garden in Every Yard,” painted in 2009, might be Lederer’s last painting. Inspired by Michelle Obama’s healthy-eating campaign, it shows a vegetable garden filling the White House lawn, tended by people of various races. Cyclists ride past ducks on a clear blue pond; flowers and trees dot a green and thriving landscape. It is a celebration of the Earth and all things living on it.

Lederer still sees things she wants to paint, like a beautiful 84-year-old friend who visits, or a handsome young man who helped to plant the vegetable garden just outside her door — something a loyal group of friends pitches in to do every spring.

“I think, ‘If I could just paint one more time,’ but I don’t know if I can.”

Age takes a toll, even if a shot in the back doesn’t.



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