Instructor finds the beauty of it all

April 28, 2000. Something isn't right.

The clock strikes 2 p.m. A funny feeling comes over 58-year-old Nancy Ratzlaff. She grabs at her chest. She says it feels like being "freeze dried."

There is no pain. Still, she tells her husband to call 911.

Something isn't right.

Life changed for the now 64-year-old Ratzlaff that day. Heart attacks tend to do that to people.

Today, she doesn't shy away from talking about the troubles caused by her medical problems, or the five months of "doctors putting me back together," or the eventual amputation of one leg.

"I didn't have an emotional problem with it," she said. "I'm still about doing things that are important to me. I'm not disabled; I'm inconvenienced."

There's a good reason why she talks openly about the difficult time six years ago. It opened her up to a beauty she had never found in 45 years as an artist.

The beauty of life.

"I was extremely selfish before that happened," Ratzlaff said. "My whole attitude changed after the heart attack. I enjoy life and people now. It's precious to me. Since God has thrown me back two or three times, I figure I better make the best of it."

'I love teaching'

Simple was the message the fast talking, complimentary, witty and, at times, blunt instructor delivered to students Tuesday inside the community room at Sunset Meadows I.

The tutorial covered tips on drawing the subject -- a stuffed antelope head.

Eyes give away anger. There is a rhythm to drawing hair.

Ratzlaff instructed her class to use reference points to help them capture the animal on paper. She used her scooter, the Sundancer, to weave through the room and emphasize her points.

"I love teaching almost as much as I love doing the work myself," she said.

The students take mental notes and pencil lines on their sketchpads. In their fourth lesson of the semester, they're coming along nicely, Ratzlaff said.

"It's because they want to," she said. "They're not just students who need a humanities course. And I challenge them. I'm not flattering anybody because it doesn't do anyone any good. ... You wouldn't believe what they can do."

The class is comprised of about 10 seniors, ages 50 and older. On Tuesday, five women attended. The class is sponsored by a Colorado Northwestern Community College senior scholarship, a first-year initiative implemented by CNCC President John Boyd.

Students pay for supplies only.

Mary Shearer, CNCC director of community education, said she's pleased.

"This is comparable to what so many of the beginner's level classes do," she said. "It's such a wonderful activity for those over 50.

"I was really nervous about the class because some seniors have limitations. But, it seems they're learning. When a lot of seniors are napping, these ladies are up here rocking and rolling."

'I admire her'

Students attend to their drawings, their eyes bouncing back and forth between subject and sketch. They take time to chat about their teacher, who they praise.

"I admire her," Dorothy Cox said. "She doesn't let anything get her down."

"I think she's doing remarkably well and enjoying every minute of it," Joy Nylander said.

Teaching is nothing new for Ratzlaff, a Grand Junction native and a Craig resident since 1979. An artist since age 19, she's also been teaching private and public courses for the past 20 years.

"You name it, I teach it," she said.

She doesn't have any illusions about her students going on to become the next Rembrandt, or that they will someday capture moments of life like her own personal inspiration did, the late American painter George Bellows.

Nonetheless, the art business really is fickle, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

"I'm not an art snob," Ratzlaff said. "I'm not the end all, be all, and neither is anybody else."

She takes particular delight in the progress made by Marie Switzer, a resident of Sunset Meadows II. Legally blind, Switzer has to sit up close to sketch her subject.

"For a gal that can't see, you're doing remarkably well," Ratzlaff quips.

A smiling Switzer said she takes pride in her work.

"It's something I can do," she said. "I'm not the best, but you can tell what I'm drawing."

'Exciting changes'

Shearer said CNCC is offering another art class, open to anyone, beginning in January. She calls the class one of the "most exciting changes at CNCC" in the past several years.

Shearer said she hopes Ratzlaff will be up to teaching another round.

Ratzlaff, whose work is on display at Neolithics in downtown Craig, said teaching, like art, is in her blood. The class is a mutually benefiting society, she said.

"I'm constantly learning," she said. "I haven't learned it all yet, and I hope I never do."

Someday, Ratzlaff will give up art. That day, however, isn't today, so she plans to keep teaching and keep producing her own works along the way.

"Till I drop over dead," she said of when she'll call it a career. "That's not today, though. I'm not planning on going today."

Joshua Roberts can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or jroberts@craigdailypress.com.

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