Island artist offers up a message of hope

Island tile-maker Irene Otis says she found healing while transforming her fence on Ridge Road.  - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Island tile-maker Irene Otis says she found healing while transforming her fence on Ridge Road.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

For years, Irene Otis has created colorful tiles that offered up encouraging and playful aphorisms — statements of hope about life, love, home, family.

Now, she’s put one of her heartfelt statements on the fence that bounds her house.

Painted in large cursive letters, her tall, wooden fence bears the words: “After the dark comes the light, everything is going to be alright.”

She filled in the letters with a special glow-in-the-dark paint, so the message shimmers in the evening. Outlining the fence are 872 small colored lights. And atop the fence are mugs — some of her own as well as dozens contributed by both friends and strangers — each one carefully adhered so it won’t fall off.

For those who know this diminutive artist — she’s 4’11” — it seems classic Irene: Strong, affirming, colorful, creative. What many don’t know is that the creation has been a process of healing for Otis, a woman who found herself in one of the darkest stretches of her life earlier this year — and that it’s a message meant not only to offer up hope to others but also to herself.

In an interview in her home on Ridge Road, Otis, 61, spoke openly about the last several months, when her life began to unravel. Her husband of 16 years left. Her youngest daughter went off to college, her teenage son to live with her eldest daughter. Suddenly, this mother of four found her home empty and her heart full of pain.

She wanted to let the world know how much she hurt, so she thought she’d announce it — on her fence. Instead, as she contemplated the idea of shouting out her pain, another epiphany hit her: She realized she felt some hope.

Only weeks before, she’d had several of the trees that surrounded her home taken down, and it dawned on her that she was beginning to bring light into a house that had felt both literally and figuratively dark.

She then began clearing the blackberries and brush from in front of her fence, another way to physically tackle the agony that had gripped her.

And as she considered her canvas — a fence on Ridge Road that dozens of Islanders pass each day — she saw that something else was happening inside her: Her anger and hurt were giving way to a spirit of healing.

“I realized that I needed to make my life whole again,” she said.

Her friend and fellow artist Karen Hersh-Crozier came over, and with her support and encouragement, Otis began an artistic process that she now calls “a turning point” in her life. It was Oct. 24, she said, a sunny day. At Hersh-Crozier’s suggestion, she painted the words first with water — so she could see how they’d fill the fence. She then outlined them with chalk — and then filled them in with spray paint. Coat after coat, she said.

Somewhere along the line, the idea of cups came to her — a symbol that spoke to this iconographic artist: Cups are a container, she said; they “runneth over,” she noted; they can be half empty, or half full.

The cups presented a new challenge: Each one had to have a hole drilled in the bottom so that it wouldn’t fill with water that would freeze and cause it to crack. So she tackled that project, drilling holes into each one and adhering them to the top of the fence.

She put a box out and painted an artful sign, asking passersby to contribute their own mugs to the project. They did, in droves, and more cups began to populate her fence.

Other friends helped her. They took photographs, which she now has on her laptop as a slideshow, replete with music.

The glow-in-the-dark paint presented the biggest challenge of all. She went first to an art-supply store and bought $35 worth of special paint, only to find it didn’t really hold a glow. She then went online and found an even more expensive paint, guaranteed to work — except it, too, didn’t. But the company sent her some more; she painted additional coats; she installed special LED spotlights.

And now, she said, her message glows at night.

The process has been remarkable to her — surprisingly, she admits, considering that she’s an artist who has given her life over to creativity, symbolism and the artistic process.

“It’s really heartening to me to see how doing something symbolic can bring about change. It just was a surprise,” she said.

Even more heartening, she said, has been the response. Strangers have stopped at her home and knocked on her door, telling her that her message had lifted their spirits. One woman wrote her a note, saying she makes a point of driving past every day. Another stopped to tell Otis her own story of hardship and pain.

“I felt like nobody had felt as bad as I did, but I now realize that’s not true,” she said. “It turned out to be a message we all need.”

Otis isn’t done. Her call for cups has had such a strong response that she now plans to build a cup sculpture next to her fence. She’s adding a bathtub, with Our Lady of Guadalupe inside it, and a meditating bench in front of it.

Hersh-Crozier, who has visited Otis nearly every day as this project has unfolded, said it’s been a remarkable process to observe and support. It says so much about Otis, a deeply creative soul who “lives outside the normal grid,” she said.

“She’s tiny. She looks like this tiny gnome. But she carries enormous possibility and weight,” Hersh-Crozier said.

And, like Otis, Hersh-Crozier has been struck by the response.

“It’s almost like the Island has a voice that’s beginning to speak to her,” Hersh-Crozier said. “That fence is bigger than she is.”

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