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Drawing in the dark
SESSER, Ill. -- It's easy to tell a Gene Flowers drawing just by looking for the details. There are tiny screws in the hinges of the barn doors. The covered bridge is topped by 14 rows of intricate shingles.
The 71-year-old from this town in Southern Illinois uses an architect's needle-thin pen to sketch his rural scenes, preserving with razor-sharp lines and pinprick-sized dots images of days gone by: an old-fashioned barn yard, a covered bridge, a corner gas station.
His son drives him to the scenes he wants to sketch because the retired elementary school teacher can't drive anymore or even cross the road by himself -- he's nearly blind.
Flowers lost his left eye in a hunting accident when he was 17, and two years ago was diagnosed with macular degeneration in his right eye, a condition that leaves only his peripheral vision in focus. While Flowers says he's not going blind, his condition isn't expected to improve.
"Looking at you right now, I can't see your beard," he recently told a visitor standing a foot away.
But with the help of binoculars and a high-powered projector, Flowers is able to draw each barb on a fence, and all 23 rows of bricks that comprise the chimney on Abraham Lincoln's Springfield home.
He starts out with a set of binoculars, a handful of sharpened pencils and a fold-up card table. After sketching a rough outline -- looking sideways into the binoculars while he draws -- Flowers zeros in on the details at home, with the help of a projector that magnifies the drawing several hundred times.
Worth doing right
The razor-thin lines become as broad as the strokes of a paint brush; the dots become splatter marks across the page.
The widower and father of three -- grandfather of nine -- says he spends up to 60 hours a week on his drawings, which can take dozens of hours each to complete.
"I don't think they're worth doing if they're not worth doing right," he says.
And he's built up a tidy business in the 20 years since he first started doodling during a break from an afternoon class. More than 40 motels, gas stations and restaurants in Illinois, Missouri and Indiana sell his prints for $3 to $6 each, making Flowers at least $2,000 a month to supplement his modest pension. He also sells his sketches on his Web site, www.geneflowers.com.
"The tourists like them because they depict scenes from Southern Illinois," said Steve Rogers, who works at the Pioneer Cabins restaurant in Carterville.
To Flowers, the drawings depict a life of long ago that has nearly faded away.
"I'm trying to capture an old way of life that's disappearing -- these old farms and bridges," he says. "I want to capture them before they're gone."