Painting always was a respite for late artist Richard McGrath.
The Air Force Veteran, who moved to Lynchburg in the 1990s after marrying his second wife, Carol, began painting in the 1970s. At the time, he worked for General Electric in Burlington, Vermont, and was looking for a way to deal with his high-stress job, Carol McGrath says.
“He just decided he wanted to try painting,” she says. “It calmed him.”
In 1996, McGrath dove deeper into his art after he was diagnosed with peripheral artery disease and had to have one leg amputated.
“That was rather devastating to him because he was very active,” Carol says, noting his love of cross-country skiing and the marathons he ran in the 1970s and ’80s. “He began painting more. It eased him, and calmed his nerves.”
Now, nearly two years after McGrath’s death from complications of dementia, Carol is hoping her husband’s paintings will bring others the same joy they brought him.
She has donated nearly two dozen of them to CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Central Virginia, and the nonprofit is using them to raise awareness and money for the work they do helping abused and neglected children navigate the court system.
Carol says they had about 60 paintings hanging in their Elon home when her husband died in 2015; in the aftermath of his death, McGrath’s four children took some of them, and she kept five.
But after moving back to Lynchburg and downsizing, she didn’t know what to do with the rest of them. Then someone — she can’t remember exactly who — suggested she donate the work to CASA.
“I knew he wanted people to see his work,” she says. “And [this way] I knew that they were going to be hung and hopefully any money they can bring in for them will be helpful.”
Eight of those paintings will hang through the end of the month at the Lodge of the Fisherman, which is on the same Boonsboro Road property as the Church of the Covenant and Camp Kum-Ba-Yah, and two are displayed at The White Hart in downtown Lynchburg.
“[Carol] was so sweet and so generous, we didn’t want to say no,” says Allison Stronza, CASA executive director. “We figured we would find a way to make it work.”
Marketing intern Katie Godwin, a Randolph College sophomore, took the lead on the exhibit when she joined CASA in January.
“It’s so helpful to have that consistency,” Stronza says, “and someone who can focus on a project we’ve been putting on our backburner or just don’t have the capacity to do.”
At the Lodge, each painting is paired with information about a child CASA has helped, along with stock photos from the national organization. They can’t use actual photos — or any identifying details — about the children they’ve helped for confidentiality reasons.
“That’s part of the thing that makes doing this so hard, and marketing for CASA,” Godwin says. “They can’t show the faces of the kids they’ve helped. … When [people] can’t see the faces [of children] that are being abused and neglected, that makes it a little harder. When you can’t look into their eyes, it’s a little harder to feel sympathy.”
Staffers also have to wait until a case is closed before they can change the names to share a case story, Stronza says.
“You see other organizations, The Boys & Girls Club, for example, [or] the Humane Society. When they have a child or a puppy or someone that they’re helping, they can actually share their story — with the parents’ permission, of course, for a child. They can share their picture, their story and do it in real time. And we can’t do that,” she says. “… It’s very confidential; we could never use their picture even with permission.”
Godwin worked with CASA’s staff and volunteer advocates to gather the stories she’d use for the project.
“I gave her some resources, some stories we’ve used in the past, and I also gave her the contact information for all our staff, so she could reach out to them,” Stronza says. “… She’s done a wonderful job crafting these stories based on what she’s learned in her short time with CASA.”
Among the stories is that of a boy who was removed from his home several times over the years as his mother dealt with substance abuse issues and whose assigned CASA volunteer became “the only constant in his life for years,” Godwin says.
Another child was taken out of his abusive household on the recommendation of his CASA advocate; now adopted into a “wonderful home” and playing for his school’s basketball team, Godwin writes, “he still picks up the phone to call his first real friend.”
Godwin says she thought displaying examples of the work CASA does alongside the paintings would resonate.
“I thought it would make it more meaningful,” she says. “Even if you aren’t necessarily looking to buy a painting, but you saw a story about this child who really needed help and finally got the help they deserved, I thought that would speak to people.”
Each painting has a minimum suggested price of $75.
“I see this more as a way to raise awareness,” Stronza says. “I think it will raise some funds but I also think it’s going to raise awareness about the mission of CASA. Some of our other fundraising events, especially Ladies’ Night Out and our shoe sale, it’s little more difficult to connect it to our mission.”
Education also is a big part of it, Godwin says, especially with April being Child Abuse Prevention Month.
CASA’s volunteer advocates work with children in Lynchburg, as well as Bedford, Campbell, Nelson and Amherst counties. In their coverage area last year, she says, there were 1,729 cases of child abuse or neglect that were reported, investigated and confirmed. CASA served 292 of those children with 105 volunteers.
“Our goal is really to get people involved and to kind of educate people about how to stop child abuse,” Godwin says. “We want people to know what to do if they suspect a child is being abused or neglected. We want them to have the information: how to report it, where to go, who to talk to. Because so often, people wait. They’ll wait and think, ‘This is not actually what I think it is.’
“Chances are it is, and it needs to be reported right away.”
McGrath’s work was hung at the Lodge last week and can be viewed from 8 to 11:30 a.m. Fridays, when the Lodge is open as Common Grounds Café.
The paintings mostly are landscapes, which Carol McGrath says became her husband’s specialty.
“He wanted to paint things he was familiar with,” she says. “That’s why he ended up with landscapes. He loved to do cross-country skiing. He would cross-country ski and come back and do a painting. … He also had a sailboat that he would sail on Lake Champlain in Vermont, and a lot of his paintings are of Lake Champlain.”
She says he continued painting after he was diagnosed with dementia.
“He painted towards the end, [but] most of them just didn’t make any sense. They were more Picasso-like,” she says.
In addition to the paintings she gave to CASA, Carol also donated most of his later paintings to the E.C. Glass High School art department, so teachers and students could reuse the canvases.
“Anything that’s going to help the community, the city,” she says. “The people, specifically, that need the help.”