05/07/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
Deborah Carrino doesn't blame her father for selling her sister's drawings. Like the rest of the family, he was reeling with grief in 1972 over the accident that spared 18-year-old Deborah's life but killed Karen, 19, her brother Michael, 8, and a friend's little girl. But Karen had been a promising artist, and Robert Carrino didn't want her hundreds of pictures collecting dust in a closet. So he held a benefit exhibition at her high school in West New York, N.J., and donated the proceeds to a pair of art students. "I was too devastated," recalls Deborah, now 46, "to feel anything about what he was doing."
It took Deborah nearly 20 years to realize she had to find Karen's drawings in order to come to terms with the tragedy, and she spent another decade tracking them down. Now she has published 124 of the pictures in a book, The Spirit of Children: The Art and Life of Karen Carrino. "I couldn't do anything about losing her," says Deborah, whose labor of love and obsession has brought her a blizzard of media attention. "But I can bring Karen to the world through her work."
Art experts have testified that the drawings, mainly of children, show a maturity well beyond Karen's years. But it's not just the skill that captivates—it's the soulfulness. "Karen isn't there [just] to make a picture," observes art professor Sara Lynn Henry, who teaches at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "She's there to enter into the subject and explore it."
That's pretty much the way Karen went about her life, despite her family's daunting problems, Deborah notes. Their mother, Ethel, now 69, was "basically overwhelmed" by her eight children, Deborah remembers, while Robert, a systems analyst who died in 1985, was given to terrifying rages. Only Karen was able to create order amid the chaos, immersing herself in drawing and her love of children. "When she wasn't babysitting or taking care of Michael," says Deborah, "she was sketching."
Karen was devoted to her youngest brother. In 1969, when Ethel and Robert split, the older kids went to live with their father. But because Ethel was keeping Michael, Karen chose to stay with her. Two years later she gave up a scholarship to Boston University rather than leave her brother behind. Finally, in 1972, Karen and Michael joined their siblings in nearby Union City; the children shared an apartment next door to Robert and his new wife. "It was great," says Deborah. Karen became the caretaker, doing the cooking and cleaning and taking everyone swimming or on picnics.
Then, on Dec. 9, 1972, calamity struck. That evening a friend held a birthday party for Karen, who had turned 19 five days before. Around midnight Deborah, Michael and four others, including 3-year-old Lisa Boudrie, whom Deborah was babysitting, piled into Karen's VW Beetle to go home. On the Garden State Parkway, a tire went flat. Karen pulled onto the shoulder and waited for a tow truck. "All of a sudden there was an explosion," Deborah relates. "I was spitting glass out of my mouth." A hit-and-run driver had plowed into the car, killing Michael, Karen and Lisa.
No one took the loss harder than Deborah. Unable to bear the pity in people's eyes, she retreated from life. "Karen was Deborah's best friend," says her brother Robert Jr., now 44 and the owner of a cleaning business in Hanover, Pa. "If someone that close to you passes on, it's hard to let go." Deborah never really did, despite years of therapy. At last, in 1990, she set out to locate Karen's drawings. Deborah approached friends and relatives, then went back to Karen's high school, where five teachers came forward with pictures. After the local paper ran a story about her quest, more owners emerged. "At the beginning," Deborah recalls, "I cried all the time, especially if I found a piece that wasn't taken care of." But with the tears came a determination to find Karen's work a wider audience. "I was in awe of its beauty," says Deborah. "I felt it deserved recognition."
With The Spirit of Children, she has achieved that. The book has also brought the surviving Carrinos closer, says Robert Jr. "Karen's art is like a chain that links us," he explains. Deborah, who never married, now runs her own tile-painting business from her home in Milford, N.J. Having repaid Karen in some measure for the joy her sister once gave her, she feels ready to get on with her life. Yet she doubts she will ever fill the void that opened 28 years ago. "I don't think," Deborah says, "that there is ever closure for something like this."
Rebecca Paley in Milford