Ba Rea has always had trouble with blank pages.
“They’re very hard because you have to start,” she says.
None of the pages in the boxes that cover the tables and rest in the floors of her Monroe County home is blank though.
They are filled with more than five decades of Rea’s illustrations and words — some in loose form and others more contained.
A look around the house and through Rea’s overflowing portfolio provides a glance at her life as an artist, an author, an educator, a publisher and a naturalist.
A life in pieces that Rea is now trying to put together.
But it’s been some time since the 68-year-old filled one of those troublesome blank pages.
That wasn’t her plan for this stage in her life. She still hoped to create and to roam fields with her beloved monarch butterflies.
Yet sometimes life has different plans. Or, in Rea’s case, it’s a demyelinating disease.
So instead she’s surrounding herself with her life’s work, slowly sorting through the boxes, trying to make sense of where she’s been.
And when she’s finished, she says perhaps the inspiration, and more importantly the ability, to create, will return.
• • •
Although Rea can no longer traipse through the fields and even her own beautiful property, through her kitchen windows she watches hummingbirds, squirrels and even butterflies make their way through the gardens. And she has containers of caterpillars on her kitchen table.
“It’s going to be a chrysalis soon,” she says, explaining the stages the caterpillar will go through before emerging from its cocoon as a fully formed butterfly. “This guy is probably the smallest I have at the moment.”
Alongside the caterpillars are books she has authored including “Learning From Monarchs, A Teachers’ Handbook” and “Monarch! Come Play with Me,” a children’s book, which she also illustrated and even translated into Spanish.
Rea’s love for nature and everything outdoors has no real beginning. Or at least not one she can remember.
“My father told stories about sitting with me when I was 2 or 3 watching caterpillars,” she says. “I was always fascinated.”
But as a child growing up in Glenshaw, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh, she really just remembers falling in love with the outdoors.
“There was a Girl Scout cabin down the hill from us with a little swamp and lots of open places and that was my play area,” she says.
It was there that she discovered insects, crayfish and snakes and also learned that she wasn’t allowed to take any home with her.
“But when I was in third grade, I found three praying mantis cases,” she recalls, smiling. “They look like Styrofoam. Anyway, I knew I wasn’t supposed to have insects in the house, but if I didn’t keep them close, I would never find out what they were, so I brought them home and put them in my dresser.”
When spring came, Rea, along with an older sister who shared the dresser but not her interest in insects, had company.
“She was screaming and carrying on, and I’m scooping up praying mantises and carrying them outside and praying they’ll be OK,” she recalls, laughing.
“I’ve always liked praying mantises.”
Rea has also always liked to draw.
The oldest illustration in her portfolio is an ink drawing from her junior year of high school.
“It’s an Adam and Eve type of thing,” Rea says of the drawing, which includes the text, “a piece of apple and a taste of temptation.”
More than 50 years later, she quickly recalls the name of her art teacher.
“Mrs. Robinson,” she says, with a nod. “She encouraged me to be who I am.”
Her dad, on the other hand, wanted her to be a doctor.
So they negotiated and she landed at the University of Illinois, where she studied medical arts (medical illustration).
“He thought I would come around,” she says, with a slight shrug.
Instead, early in her education, she found love with a fellow student, a jazz flutist who became her first husband.
When the marriage didn’t work out, she found herself at her sister and brother-in-law’s farm on Nantucket — back to the spot where she had first discovered butterflies when she was 18.
“I was an artist, an illustrator,” she says. “I started bringing milkweed home and drawing it. I wanted to watch it and see how you got pods from a big round thing of flowers. And without knowing it, I brought home monarch caterpillars. They were all over my room and were so amazing. They were beautiful jade and gold and gorgeous.
“I’ve been doing monarchs since then.”
• • •
By the time Rea went back to school in 1976, her father’s dream of her becoming a doctor was gone, as she put together a field of study combining educational psychology, illustration and natural history.
“I was getting myself prepared to learn to use illustration to teach science,” she says.
And she has done a lot of that, though never as an actual schoolteacher.
She met Jay King, who became her second husband and father of her two children, in 1977 and worked as a successful illustrator.
But she was widowed in 1992 when cancer took his life at 42.
Her portfolio shows the family, growing with son Jason and then daughter Mindy — always with a crew of animals — smiling on Christmas cards.
“It was a good life,” Rea says, touching the drawings. “We were happy.”
After her husband’s death, Rea moved to Nantucket and then back to Glenshaw to be near her parents.
That’s when the Bas Relief Publishing Group began as she and her sister CJ, a national park ranger in Alaska, co-wrote a book on puffins, which Rea illustrated. The sisters also teamed up for a book on whales titled “A Whale’s Tale From the Supper Sea.”
It wasn’t long after that Rea decided to take a trip to Mexico to visit the sites, 10,000 feet up, where monarchs travel for the winter before migrating back.
While there, she met and fell in love with Bob Fry, a Union resident whose wife passed away the same year as Jay.
“He was the first person I had met who understood that you don’t get over it,” she says of losing a spouse. “You have a life partner and they die and you don’t get over it. It becomes part of who you are.
“It was a very good time.”
But Rea was committed to caring for both of her parents, and never had the chance to live with Fry, as she lost them all within 18 months.
“He died in 2005,” she says with a deep sigh. “Christmas Eve.”
And though she never lived with Fry, she did move into his home, as his children told her the house was hers for life.
“I came here for Bob,” she says. “But I fell in love with the man and with the land.”
So she packed up her home and her parents’ home and moved to West Virginia, putting all of her money into the house that she says is “like the biggest hug you can ever imagine.”
“I don’t own the house,” she says. “It owns me.”
• • •
In hindsight, it was during the move from Pennsylvania to West Virginia that Rea first began to notice the changes in her body.
“I started getting tired,” she says. “And that was even during the last year of Bob’s life that I started getting tired.”
During the move, she struggled carrying boxes and lifting things that would ordinarily have been easy.
And when she went hiking, she’d bend down to tie her shoe and wouldn’t be able to stand up.
“I’d be like, ‘Hey, what’s that about?’” she recalls. “But I was so busy and I just thought it was everybody dying and I was closing down everything that had been my whole life. I thought that was it.”
A couple years passed and every once in a while her left leg began to drag, so she went to the doctor.
“But everything came back normal so she (the doctor) said, ‘Take care of yourself,’” Rea says.
And then neuropathy — an endless feeling of pins and needles — began to climb her entire body.
“It went into my pelvis and my chest,” she says. “I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t lie down. I couldn’t do anything. I was in horrible pain all the time.”
The neurologist says it’s multiple sclerosis (MS), but Rea doesn’t really believe in that diagnosis.
“I think it’s a big tent diagnosis and I think one day it’s going to get dropped,” she says. “But I do accept and recognize that I have a demyelinating problem.”
There is a family history as both her mom and grandmother were diagnosed, but she says her grandmother was wheelchair-bound until her 70s when she got up one day and got her driver’s license.
Rea doesn’t take medicine for her disease, as she says there’s no guarantee it will make it better.
“I try to control it with exercise and (organic) diet,” she says, and she sees an osteopathic doctor for manipulation, a second doctor for physical problems and a massage therapist regularly.
But she says it is worsening, as she can’t be out in direct sunlight above 68 degrees and has trouble with her balance.
“I think what happened to my walking, a little bit, is I got scared,” she says. “I used to laugh and say, “I fall better than anybody I know.'”
Then she had two bad falls, one requiring facial stitches.
“I think that’s why I lost some of the walking is because I’m afraid to fall down now,” she continues. “I’ve forgotten how to move. I can’t remember.”
And though she can’t remember exactly how to move, she says she sometimes reminds other people to be thankful they can.
“I’m the crazy old lady who sits on the bench and occasionally stops a young person and says, ‘Be grateful for that walking down the street thing,’” she says, with a laugh.
“For 61 years my body did whatever I wanted," she continues. "And we went places and sometimes I was kind of hard on it, but it did it anyhow. And at 61, my body sat me down and said, ‘My turn.’”
• • •
Rea, who walks with a cane, takes things slowly now and she says that’s OK.
Hanging on her bedroom wall is a well-worn Levis jean jacket she wore during her time on Nantucket in 1975.
On the back, she stitched a monarch butterfly along with other items she says symbolized her relationship to the Earth.
“It’s who I was at that point,” she says. “I doodled it over and over. It’s still who I am. But this is much more the young artist I was. I still believe the same things, but my relationship to them has changed drastically. I was trying to expand and embrace it all and now I’m trying to put together the pieces and understand what I’ve done."
She’s done illustrations for Audubon, conservatories, newspapers and national magazines.
Her butterfly programs have been taught in classrooms and she still offers programs to garden clubs and even sometimes at her home.
But she says she’d like to take her illustrations, her writing and all of her different works and assemble it into something bigger for her family.
“I want to put it into books for my kids so they’ll know what that pile of junk is,” she says. “It feels to me like I am, my brother used to say, 'We’re in the final quarter of life,' and if I am lucky, if I am given the time, I would like to go through and organize it so that my kids will have packets of what it is.”
And she’s aware that there are more blank pages, for both words and illustrations.
She'd like to fill them.
“My hands buzz constantly. They really hurt,” she says. “I don’t have normal sensation, but I can still draw."
But she says her hope is, once she gets started with organizing the pieces, she’ll start to do just that.
“That’s my hope,” she says. “The blank pages have always been a problem and it hurts to not make them blank pages. But once you start, then it just takes you over and you can do wondrous things with it.”
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