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'She saved others in the pandemic': 91-year-old coronavirus survivor paints a watercolor a day

Oct 19, 2020
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Bonnie Bowen paints a rendition of her eight-year-old granddaughter, Angel Bowen, in her Upper Arlington home while her daughter, Betsy Hampton, chooses which of her motherís paintings will be part of the calendars they are creating, on Oct. 14, 2020.
Bonnie Bowen paints a rendition of her eight-year-old granddaughter, Angel Bowen, in her Upper Arlington home while her daughter, Betsy Hampton, chooses which of her motherís paintings will be part of the calendars they are creating, on Oct. 14, 2020.

COLUMBUS — Some might see Bonnie Bowen’s whimsical watercolors — of which she’s painted at least one a day since the pandemic began — as cute, quaint or nice.  

Dr. Amy Acton sees them as lifesavers.  

“Things like this are what get us through these dark days,” said Acton, former director of the Ohio Department of Health. “She saved others in the pandemic. They’re whimsical, yes, but you can read in the comments (on Facebook) that she saved people.” 

You made my day again. 

Thank you 100 times over for giving us smiles.  

I can feel pure joy when I look at this painting. What a difference you have made in our lives, dear lady. 

What started as a simple challenge from a daughter to keep her 91-year-old mother engaged with family and friends through painting a picture daily to share on social media has grown into a following in which fans eagerly await Bowen’s artwork post each morning.

Bonnie Bowen paints a rendition of her eight-year-old granddaughter, Angel Bowen, in her Upper Arlington home on Oct. 14, 2020.Bonnie Bowen paints a rendition of her eight-year-old granddaughter, Angel Bowen, in her Upper Arlington home on Oct. 14, 2020.
Bonnie Bowen paints a rendition of her eight-year-old granddaughter, Angel Bowen, in her Upper Arlington home on Oct. 14, 2020.

More than 200 paintings later, Bowen’s fan club includes Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, “Today” co-anchor Hoda Kotb, and thousands of strangers nationwide.  

“I get up every morning and I can’t wait to see what she created,” said Dr. Rustin Moore, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University, who is the subject of one of the paintings.  

He said he was at first drawn to Bowen’s pieces because early on in the pandemic, the watercolors focused on health-care workers. 

Inspired by the scenes from Italy of people singing from their windows during stay-at-home orders, Bonnie Bowen painted this piece.Inspired by the scenes from Italy of people singing from their windows during stay-at-home orders, Bonnie Bowen painted this piece.
Inspired by the scenes from Italy of people singing from their windows during stay-at-home orders, Bonnie Bowen painted this piece.

Bowen, who lives in Upper Arlington, Ohio when not in Florida during colder months, has also depicted familiar pandemic scenes, such as mask making, people singing from apartment windows and what it’s now like to go to the grocery store.   

Now, she’s drawing all sorts of subjects, from seasonal themes to her family and friends and simple pleasures in life, such as going to the beach or sharing a glass of wine with friends — or by yourself after a long day.  

“I often wonder what inspires any given work,” Moore said. “I love the brilliance of her creativity.” 

Bonnie Bowen, 91, painted this picture depicting a photograph of Dr. Amy Acton and her daughter demonstrating social distancing.Bonnie Bowen, 91, painted this picture depicting a photograph of Dr. Amy Acton and her daughter demonstrating social distancing.
Bonnie Bowen, 91, painted this picture depicting a photograph of Dr. Amy Acton and her daughter demonstrating social distancing.

In fact, Bowen’s love of a good glass of wine was the catalyst for the project.  

Throughout her life, Bowen has created art — painting a mural when she was in third grade, sketching cartoon-like characters as a young mother or taking watercolor classes.  

However, in the early 2000s, she began drawing what she refers to as “the wine girls.” She’s painted them and various scenes on wine glasses and had her drawings printed on calendars and aprons to send to friends.  

“The wine girls, I’d paint whenever I felt like drawing, maybe once a day, whenever I got an idea,” Bowen said. “Like a girl walking in the rain with wine or walking on the beach with wine.” 

Those figures are very similar to the ones she’s been drawing during the pandemic, but many of her more recent paintings have deeper meaning.  

“One of my favorites is this ‘flatten the curve’ one,” Bowen said, holding up a 5-inch-by-8-inch sheet showing a woman bent over in a contorted position resembling the curve — but she is reaching for a glass of vino.  

“Every one has a story behind it. It’s just fun.” 

But, agreeing with Acton, these quirky doodles have meant a lot more than just entertainment for both Bowen and her fans, said her daughter Betsy Hampton.  

Betsy Hampton, daughter of Bonnie Bowen, holds up her motherís painting of emergency workers striking the O-H-I-O pose in Bowenís Upper Arlington home on Oct. 14, 2020. Hampton said this painting is one of the most popular for people following her motherís Facebook account.Betsy Hampton, daughter of Bonnie Bowen, holds up her motherís painting of emergency workers striking the O-H-I-O pose in Bowenís Upper Arlington home on Oct. 14, 2020. Hampton said this painting is one of the most popular for people following her motherís Facebook account.
Betsy Hampton, daughter of Bonnie Bowen, holds up her motherís painting of emergency workers striking the O-H-I-O pose in Bowenís Upper Arlington home on Oct. 14, 2020. Hampton said this painting is one of the most popular for people following her motherís Facebook account.

In the beginning, they served as a connection between Bowen and her family, with her texting daily a photo of a new drawing to Hampton, who would share it on her personal Facebook page. Soon, though, Hampton realized others might enjoy them so she created a page for the artwork.  

“We want to make people happy,” Hampton said. “With the election, COVID and the flu, good God in heaven, we need something light.” 

Now, nearly 4,000 people follow Bowen’s daily drawings, with each one receiving dozens of comments. Her story has been told in media outlets nationwide. She received a call from the governor praising her work, and she’s since started selling prints as well as masks, shirts, greeting cards and calendars with her work on them for charity.  

“When Mom was diagnosed with COVID, we had over 200,000 prayer requests,” Hampton said. “It worked.” 

Bowen was diagnosed with the coronavirus in early September and was very sick for two to three weeks.  

Hampton said she knew her mother was on the mend when she got out of bed and finished four paintings, including a lovely scene of three people and a dog riding off into the sunset in a Jeep-like vehicle. Bowen titled it “Road to Recovery.” 

One of Bonnie Bowen's more recent paintings showing young children in Halloween costumesOne of Bonnie Bowen's more recent paintings showing young children in Halloween costumes
One of Bonnie Bowen’s more recent paintings showing young children in Halloween costumes

Though the survival odds were stacked against the nonagenarian, Bowen’s recovery didn’t surprise Acton.  

“She’s become this unifying force in the community,” Acton said. “Acts of kindness, in science, we know the health benefits — it’s good for her, it’s good for us.” 

Acton said she cherishes the “precious” painting Bowen did of her and her daughter and knows others had similar reactions to pieces that spoke to them.  

“It’s no small thing,” Acton said. “It might be all we have. Bonnie is the epitome of pulling people together.” 

Follow Allison Ward on Twitter @AllisonAWard.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: 91-year-old Ohio woman paints a watercolor a day during COVID pandemic

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