As a nurse at Pioneer Square Clinic in Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, Mary Larson treats the wounds, calms the fevers and listens to the tales of the city's poor and homeless. Along the way, the 30-year-old amateur painter often becomes so attached to her patients that she invites them to pose for portraits. "I think Mary caught me really good," says Thomas Bendixen, 52, who until recently lived in a bread truck parked on the city's waterfront. "She got the expression and everything. I have a big smile, even though I don't have my teeth."
Larson sees her painting as a way to honor patients' souls while helping to heal their bodies. "I try to celebrate the spirit," she says. The portraits also serve a practical purpose: Last fall Larson stopped accepting cash for her works—shown at local cafes, they fetched up to $700 each—and started requesting goods for the homeless instead. Now whenever she barters one of her paintings, she turns around and distributes the take: 500 pairs of gloves and 250 pairs of socks offered by a Washington state trooper, for example, or 130 coupon books for food from McDonald's. As word of Larson's mission has spread through TV and newspaper reports, demand for her art has grown nationwide; in the past month alone she has received requests for 100 canvases.
She is never short of willing subjects. "Mary makes connections with the patients and gives them a sense of pride," says Dr. Leslie Grefenson, 37, an internist at Pioneer Square, "and that draws them back to the clinic for care." For Larson that is reward enough. "It's a privilege to share in somebody's life who has gone through trying circumstances," she says, "and to bring some kind of joy."
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