Online Exhibits

My Spirit is Free: The Life and Art of Peggy McCormack

Peggy McCormack at home in Fayetteville, 1970. Courtesy Kenneth Wickham (2006-118-13)

Born in Texas in 1936, Peggy Ann McCormack was a child of the Great Depression. Her parents, Charles and Isabell, moved their family to Northwest Arkansas when Peggy was nine years old. She explained, "Dad heard about cheap land in Arkansas. He always wanted to farm." The family settled east of Fayetteville near Elkins.

In 1952 Peggy was a healthy girl who had just turned 16 when one hot summer Saturday she felt unusually tired. At church the next morning, she was so weak she couldn't sit through the service. Peggy's parents took her to Fayetteville City Hospital and helped her walk in the front door. Those were the last steps Peggy McCormack would ever take.

When the physician on duty, Dr. Joe B. Hall, saw Peggy, "she was unconscious, gasping for tiny bites of breath, ghastly pale and blue—very near death." Dr. Hall immediately knew Peggy had been stricken with bulbar poliomyelitis, a severe type of polio which disrupts the brain's signals for breathing, swallowing, and other vital functions.

Peggy McCormack, circa 1950

Peggy's school photo, ca. 1950. Courtesy Joan Ritter Scranton (S-2006-108-1)

The polio quickly paralyzed Peggy from the neck down. She was placed in an iron lung, a machine that enabled her to breathe. During the next three years in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, Peggy learned to turn pages in a book by holding a pencil attached to a cigarette holder. She later exchanged the pencil for a piece of charcoal and made her first sketches at the age of 18. From drawing, Peggy advanced to paint by numbers.

When Peggy finished rehabilitation, she had so many special needs that neither her family on the farm nor local nursing homes could give her proper care. With the help of their church and friends, the McCormacks moved to a small rent house in Fayetteville. Isabell McCormack became her daughter's primary caregiver, tending to Peggy's needs every day for the next 28 years.

Peggy's day began about 6:00 a.m., when Isabell removed her daughter from the iron lung. For just a few hours outside the iron lung she could be in a reclining wheelchair with a portable respirator or in a therapeutic rocking hospital bed. The bed's motorized movement forced air into Peggy's lungs, allowing her to breathe on her own for short periods. It is hard to imagine the physical and emotional exhaustion experienced by both Peggy and Isabell. More and more, Peggy turned to painting as a way to lift her spirits.

Peggy McCormack and family, ca. 1965
McCormack family portrait, circa 1965. With Peggy are her parents Isabell and Charles, along with brothers Terry (left) and Charlie. Courtesy Center Street Church of Christ

At Isabell's suggestion Peggy began experimenting with watercolors, oils, and acrylics, all the while improving her ability to guide the paintbrush with her mouth. A neighboring woodcarver, John Findley, built Peggy a special easel to fit across her bed. He cut wooden plaques for Peggy to paint; Isabell stained the wood.

Within a few years, Peggy began exhibiting and selling her artwork at arts and crafts shows around Fayetteville, using the money she made to help support the family. She painted for about three hours a day, turning out anywhere from six to twelve paintings a week. Along with painting, Peggy learned to use an electric typewriter and wrote poems, hymns, and children's stories. She published two books of poetry: My Spirit is Free: Reflections from an Iron Lung, and Illustrated limericks. (Copies of My Spirit is Free can be purchased from the Arkansas Country Doctor Museum.)

Several organizations donated time and materials to help Peggy. The March of Dimes provided all of Peggy's medical treatment related to polio. The Fayetteville Fire Department maintained two backup generators in case the McCormack home experienced a power failure. Southwestern Bell installed a special push-button phone that Peggy could operate. Timex Corporation donated a mini-computer to replace her electric typewriter.

Isabell McCormack, Dr. Joe Hall, and Peggy McCormack
Isabell McCormack, Dr. Joe B. Hall, and Peggy at a party celebrating the publication of Peggy's poetry, 1981.
Courtesy Dr. Joe B. Hall

Throughout her life, Peggy expressed a deep faith in God. "I believe you have to try out your faith for yourself before you get much use out of it," she said. Most Sunday mornings, you could find Peggy and her family worshipping at the Center Street Church of Christ in Fayetteville.

Isabell McCormack, Peggy's devoted mother, died in 1982. Peggy passed away a year later. Her artwork remains today as a powerful reminder—not of a life-threatening illness, but of a life-saving spirit.

Peggy McCormack Art Gallery

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