Steve Gleason’s wife, Michel Rae Varisco, finds refuge in art

Michel Rae Varisco, the stalwart wife of Saints hero and ALS victim Steve Gleason, has been called an angel and a real-life Wonder Woman. She accepts such praise graciously, but with a grain of salt.

“I’m a crazy person as well,” she said laughing. “I don’t want to be an angel and a Wonder Woman; I want to be just a regular old person.”

Plus, she wants to make art. Her upcoming exhibit in Warren, Penn., will be a place where her internal identity, which blends aspects of all of the above, can emerge.

As depicted in the documentary movie “Gleason,” Varisco absorbed some of the stress of her husband’s arduous hospital treatments by drawing colorful patterns in a small Barnes & Noble notebook.

She called her drawings “emotional doodles.” They were safe, imaginary mazes where her thoughts could wander, get lost, find solitude.

“They gave me temporary relief for my crazy mind,” she said in a telephone conversation. “I did them whenever I was stressed, heartbroken, anxious, whatever. They started as loopy shapes, tiny little figures.”

Drawing by Michel Rae Varisco. (Image courtesy Michel Rae Varisco) 

They eventually became personal hieroglyphics, a language she couldn’t quite express in words. On one hand, the colored pencil lines dancing on the paper seemed as chaotic as the ongoing challenges of her life, raising a small boy while helping care for a profoundly disabled husband.

But on the other hand, they were anything but random. The sizes of the shapes, the spacing of the lines, the intensity of the colors, were all quite controlled. In her notebooks anyway, Varisco was in charge of how things went.  

“There’s tons of order to it,” she said of her drawing style, “when I don’t have much order in my life.”

Varisco said she is very proud of her drawings and having them blown up into large-scale prints has boosted her confidence even more. Since she began offering prints for sale in 2016, she’s sold more than 50.  

Varisco said that Ines Nelson, a board member of the Crary Art Gallery, was moved by what she saw in the movie “Gleason,” and invited her to show a selection of her works.

“Obviously, I was completely moved by the story as a whole,” Nelson said. “I found myself pausing at the drawings as she talked about the emotions she expressed through them. Some seemed to express stress, some confusion, and some of the symbols seemed to be inspired by medical tools.” 

“I went out on a limb and invited her come out to Warren, hundreds of miles away.”

Varisco was thrilled to accept, though a little apprehensive, since she has no formal art background and is starting her art career late in life, at age 40.

“I don’t know if I deserve the title (artist) yet,” she said. “I think it’s kind of pompous to call myself that. But I like doing art, making art.”

Varisco’s future art career is slightly complicated by a vexing coincidence. Her cousin, an accomplished New Orleans artist and photographer, is known for her conceptual artworks that…

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