‘I can get my life back’


More than 500 black Sharpie markers. Fifty-foot swaths of white fabric. Forty hours a week for over a year.

That’s just some of what it took for Laura Clayton to create her two artistic renderings of Noah’s Ark, displayed in the Grand Rapids international artist competition, ArtPrize, in 2014 and 2017.

But there was one other critical element to her art that she took for granted.

A healthy right shoulder.

When she fell and injured her shoulder in 2020, it forced her to put her art on hold. Now, following surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, she’s back at it—with her eyes on ArtPrize 2024.

“Now that the pain is gone, I feel like a free bird,” Clayton said. “I’m just so glad I can move it and use it.”

And that’s just what Kendall Hamilton, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with Spectrum Health Medical Group Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, likes to hear.

“She’s doing outstanding,” Dr. Hamilton said. “I think she’s one of the success stories. I’m happy that we’re able to intervene at a time when someone is experiencing so much pain, to step in and alleviate the pain so she can get back to doing the things she enjoys.”

Minimally invasive

Clayton’s health journey started in spring 2020, when she fell at her home in Comstock Park.

She had landed on her right shoulder. Having broken around a dozen bones throughout her life, she felt pretty sure she hadn’t broken anything.

“I thought, ‘Well, I didn’t break a bone, so I’m just a little bruised up,’” Clayton said.

So she lived with it. For a while.

“It just never got better,” she said.

She struggled with pain for close to two years, until in February 2021 she finally visited a doctor.

Conservative treatment with injections, anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy didn’t work, so the doctor referred her to Dr. Hamilton.

“It just got to the point where she was unable to function and enjoy her hobbies,” Dr. Hamilton said.

An MRI revealed a torn rotator cuff, with both labral and bicep tearing.

On June 6, 2022, she underwent surgery to repair the damage. The doctor performed the outpatient procedure at the Spectrum Health South Pavilion Surgical Center, using a minimally invasive arthroscopic technique.

That meant quicker recovery with less swelling, less blood loss and less pain, Dr. Hamilton said.

Two days after surgery, she started physical therapy twice per week at the Spectrum Health facility in Rockford, at MVP Athletic Club. She then transitioned to therapy once a week and, in September, her therapist allowed her to do exercises at home.

Dr. Hamilton said he tells patients to plan on six months to recover after rotator cuff surgery, but Clayton is ahead of schedule.

“I’m really glad I have it back, so I can get back to my other project,” she said.

Creative spark

Clayton has already envisioned her new project clearly in her mind. It’ll be the final piece of the trilogy she started with the pieces displayed in ArtPrize 2014 and 2017.

The first, created with black Sharpie markers on a 65-by-10-foot piece of white fabric, depicts various animals gathering at Noah’s Ark. Called “Noah’s Ark: The Promise,” it was on display for ArtPrize outside Bridgewater Place.

In the second installment, “Noah’s Ark: The Gathering,” she used black Sharpies and a 50-by-14-foot fabric, but this one featured Noah bringing in a variety of dinosaurs. It was on display at Z’s Bar & Restaurant.

The third will be her most ambitious yet—a 3D piece called “Noah’s Ark: The Flood.”

This time, she’ll be using colored Sharpies. She also hopes to include sound and lighting effects.

Her friend, Donna Jager-Brower, plans to sew on animal figures that will protrude from the piece.

Clayton works on the artwork in her living room, on a 4-by-8-foot piece of steel on the floor. Sometimes, she makes mistakes in permanent ink. She lets those serve as a creative spark.

“I didn’t fret,” she said. “If something happened, I just say, ‘I wonder what that’s going to turn out to be.’”

Self-trained, she has always loved art.

“My mother noticed I was good at art when I was young,” Clayton said.

She has already purchased the white cotton material for the final art piece.

“Now I have the rest of my life to have a strong arm,” she said. “I can get my life back.”





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