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Clara Woods fluently understands three languages: Italian (she spent her first 14 years in Florence), Portuguese (her mother is Brazilian), and English (her family moved to Huntington Beach two years ago).
But she cannot speak, read, or write any of them.
Clara suffered a prenatal stroke that severely damaged one hemisphere of her brain, leaving the right side of her body weakened.
Now 16, Clara has found her voice in another way: She paints.
She paints big. She paints bold. She paints bright. Her colorful creations hold all the words and emotions Clara would otherwise struggle to convey.
And along the way, Clara developed an international fan base. She has sold more than 650 paintings, some for more than $1,000.
“I came across her paintings on Instagram,” said Rhonda Zoch, who lives in Sharon, New Hampshire. “Clara’s artwork is full of sparkle and verve and light.”
The retired art teacher owns two paintings by Clara.
“You can’t walk past them without smiling,” she said. “Her paintings really liven up a room.”
Clara’s parents, Carlo Woods and Betina Genovesi, transformed the front part of their one-story home into an art gallery. Paintings line the walls of what were once the living, dining, and family rooms. There’s no furniture, except for a television and sofa in the den.
Artwork even spills onto the front and back patios. It’s hard to miss Clara’s house, with the 8-foot-tall painting titled “Rainbow River” propped outside.
The entire garage is her workspace, vividly splattered everywhere — both with purpose (on canvases) and as a byproduct (on the floor).
Clara discovered her passion for painting at age 10. Using her left hand, she mixes acrylics into eye-catching hues, thickly layering paints into interesting shapes.
Some of her paintings bring to mind Claude Monet’s impressionism. Others evoke Pablo Picasso’s cubism or Jackson Pollock’s drip technique or Peter Max’s pop art. In other words, Clara has her very own eclectic style.
Clara’s natural talent soon garnered attention. European magazines and newspapers featured her in articles. A Japanese artist invited her to his Kobe studio to exhibit her work.
Her parents decided she could find even more success in California — where extended family already lived — and relocated in 2020. Clara attends a special program at Edison High in Huntington Beach. Her brother Davi, 10, an avid soccer player, goes to Eader Elementary.
Clara and Davi interact in typical sibling fashion. On a recent day, their dad helped Clara climb a ladder up to Davi’s tree house — a feat that both exhilarated and scared her. Once she made her way back down, her brother mocked her timidity and screams. Without a hint of insult, Clara laughed heartily at Davi’s teasing.
Like most life stories, Clara’s began with her parents. After high school, Genovesi left Sao Paulo, Brazil, to study in Italy. There, she met her future husband, Woods, who has a now-adult daughter with disabilities from a prior marriage. They started a company that customizes wheelchairs.
The couple welcomed Clara in 2006. At first, the pretty, blonde baby seemed perfectly healthy. Then, at about seven months old, they noticed Clara wasn’t hitting the expected milestones and would not open her right hand.
Initially, they assumed she had muscular dystrophy like Woods’ older child, Eldina. But an MRI showed something else, also devastating.
“I started crying,” Genovesi, 40, recalled. “The doctor said, ‘You are right to cry. She will not be able to do anything. Her life will be so difficult.’”
Despite that tactless and dire message, Woods and Genovesi remained determined for their daughter to enjoy a rewarding existence. They immersed her in therapies meant to stimulate the senses and improve brain plasticity.
Indeed, Woods and Genovesi would prove the doctor’s bleak prognosis wrong.
“We have always taken our situation as normal,” Woods, 53, said. “We just accept it. We do not dwell on Clara’s disabilities.”
Clara animatedly engages in conversation, understanding every word spoken — gesticulating, giggling, and groaning to make her point. She uses a cellphone app that allows her to type just a few letters for it to verbalize her most common statements and questions — for instance, “Do you want to meet my guinea pigs?” (The adored Chocolate and Lulu reside in a spacious enclosure out back.)
With the help of her parents, who translate her self-styled sign language, Clara said she feels “100% herself” when she paints, freed from focusing on those things she can’t do.
Her moods are reflected in her paintings, Clara said. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, she painted “Locked Down Feelings” in browns and mustard yellow, an illustration of claustrophobia and chaos. After her grandfather died, she created her melancholy “Paradise” series. But most of her work is joyful, abounding with hearts and smiles and even glitter.
On the side, Clara decorates jeans and athletic shoes. She also sells her own paint-splashed T-shirts.
Jaret King, a deliverer for FedEx, purchased and framed an AC/DC shirt Clara once wore.
“I came across Clara’s Facebook page,” said the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, resident. “I was immediately drawn in.”
He later bought a painting and four prints.
“Clara shows herself through her paintings,” King said. “She is a great artist. It’s so cool the way she turned her disabilities into something positive.”
By SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING
Photo by Michael Goulding