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Local artist finds new life through her art after MS diagnosis

Local artist finds new life through her art after MS diagnosis

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Local artist Nysie Hurst hopes her work in the upcoming show at the Burke Arts Council will give hope to those in the community struggling with multiple sclerosis.

The show, called, “Figuring It Out,” featuring the work of Hurst and fellow artist David Francisco, opens Friday at the Jailhouse Gallery with a reception from 5-7 p.m. The show will run through Saturday, Feb. 25.

Hurst said it was her illness that propelled her into the world of art. She worked for years as a science teacher at Freedom High School with her husband, school psychologist Adrian Hurst. The pair traveled, taught and conducted research in various places around the globe before and while at Freedom. She had no previous art training.

Symptoms that had affected her since her mid-20s flared up while the couple was on an assignment in a remote part of Alaska in 2012. Hurst, then 39, said she became alarmed when parts of her body went numb, with family members fearing a stroke. After many tests, Hurst was finally diagnosed with MS. The couple returned to Morganton so she could receive more advanced care.

Hurst explained that MS is an auto-immune disease in which the patient’s T-cells cross the blood-brain barrier and attack the nerves’ myelin sheaths, which affects people not only physically through pain, tingling, muscle spasms, numbness and fatigue, but also emotionally and cognitively. Patients with more severe cases may even have trouble breathing or experience incontinence. Emotional symptoms include anxiety, depression and severe mood swings. She said symptoms can come and go and affect different parts of the body at random.

“It changes from day to day,” Hurst said. “It can be debilitating to where you are so exhausted you can’t hardly even get up to go to the bathroom. I never know what kind of a day I’m going to have until I wake up, and that is how all MS patients are. Out of the hundreds of thousands of individuals that have MS, they are all different.”

There is currently no cure for MS, but certain drugs can ease the symptoms. Hurst said that despite medication, the disease affected her ability to focus so much she had to resign from her teaching position, a devastating blow.

“My identity was that I was an adventurous academic,” Hurst said. “I was an outdoor educator, so I climbed mountains, hiked and snowboarded. I also had an analytical mind. I was designing an environmental science pilot class utilizing online technology for Alaska’s Department of Education. And then it all disappeared. I lost both physical and cognitive abilities. MS completely changes your life, not just with you, but with your family and what you expect out of yourself.”

Hurst’s search for answers led her to Winston-Salem-based neurologist Dr. Emily Farr. She said Farr was key in helping her manage her energy and mindset to create a new life.

“When I walked in (to Farr’s office) with my mom, I was already bawling,” Hurst said. “I could barely walk, and my emotions were all over the place. Dr. Farr came in and was so calm, nurturing and caring. She said, ‘You have been person A most of your life, a teacher and outdoor person. Right now, you are person B, trying to figure out how to deal with MS, but you are using all of your energy to swim upstream back to A.’ And she looked at me with such compassion in her eyes and said, ‘You will never be person A again. But there is another option – there’s person C. Person C is someone living with MS in a positive way, who has found something else. You accept that you have MS and let go of person A.’”

Hurst soon realized that person C was there, waiting in the wings.

Back in Alaska, she had been exposed to a vibrant craft scene that may have helped activate the right side of her brain as her more analytical left side came under intense attack from the disease.

“They’re very crafty in Alaska, especially around the holidays, because it’s so expensive to buy things, because it has to be shipped in,” Hurst said. “All of the sudden, it was like this light bulb went off inside my head, and all of these creative ideas and processes (such as) drawing and painting just exploded. It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s like the left side of my brain wasn’t working very well, so the right side said, ‘Well, we’ll do this now.’”

Back in Morganton, Hurst began to first draw, and then paint.

“When I started painting, I found another love, another identity,” she said. “Through that artistic exploration, I was able to get my emotions out on canvas. I got to person C because of art.”

Hurst makes mixed-media pieces that combine acrylic mediums, fabric and handmade papers.

Through taking a drawing class at the Burke Arts Council and taking her nine-year-old daughter, Sophia, to art classes, Hurst got connected to Burke Arts Council director Deborah Jones, and eventually got up enough courage to show Jones some of her work to get her opinion on it.

Jones liked some of her pieces so much she started including them in gallery displays, leading to sales and a commissioned work for Hurst. Hurst expressed appreciation for Jones, as well as local artists Kara Jones and Heidi Thompson, for helping her grow as an artist. The show starting Friday will be Hurst’s first.

She hopes many in the community come out to see her work, especially MS patients. She wants to send them a positive message that life with MS can absolutely be worth living.

“There were so many MS patients that inspired me, I want to pay it forward,” Hurst said. “They said, ‘It’s OK. It sucks, and it’s going to be hard sometimes, but you’re going to make it and find happiness again.’”

Tammie Gercken can be reached at

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