Cancer diagnosis led Lawrence man to needlework decades ago; at age 80 he’s still perfecting his art

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Lawrence artist Rick Prosser stands next to his award-winning needlework piece, "Universe in Motion," which is displayed in his home. Prosser picked up needlework after a cancer diagnosis, and since then has won more than a dozen awards for his work.

If your eyes scan the living room in Rick and Charlotte Prosser’s Lawrence home, they’re liable to settle on quite a few pieces of Rick’s art.

In fact, his art is displayed not just in that room but throughout the home, from frames lining the stairwell to the basement to embroidered stools with floral patterns positioned around the main level. But one piece draws the eye right away: a large color wheel framed in museum glass and mounted on the wall behind a grand piano. Titled “Universe in Motion,” it’s a best-of-show work from Prosser, who has taken to entering his works in Lawrence Presbyterian Manor’s “Art is Ageless” competition; the piece won the award in the 2015 contest.

The work was created using needlepoint, a medium that typically uses tapestry wool stitched onto a mesh canvas. It was the product of many hundreds of hours of work — Prosser told the Journal-World he stopped counting after 800 — and it was his first showing since picking up the art form. Until then, Prosser’s preferred medium was actually acrylic painting, and he’s also produced ink works.

Both Rick and Charlotte are originally from Springfield, Missouri. A job in Lawrence with Commonwealth Theaters brought the Prossers to Lawrence in 1968, where they’ve remained. Rick took an early retirement from a job creating yellow page advertisements for AT&T in 1991, and that’s when he began to practice needlework.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Rick Prosser stands in front of a needlework piece titled “Pandemic.” Another of his needlework pieces hangs on the far right, and Prosser also painted the piece pictured in the center.

Prosser’s talent for needlepoint didn’t begin at home, though. It started in hospital waiting rooms after a cancer diagnosis three decades ago.

Prosser, who will turn 80 this December, most recently had surgery for stage 4 cancer in his jaw bone last June. He had to have his jaw bone removed, then replaced with a bone from the back of one of his legs and a skin graft. The floor of his mouth was also removed and replaced with a skin graft.

“I tell you, it’s not like the old body, but I’m here,” Prosser said.

He spoke with the Journal-World from the Prossers’ home during his third week of immunotherapy, a follow-up to a previous six-week radiation treatment. They’ll check to see whether his cancer is in remission in July, and the Prossers are hopeful for good news.

Despite his battle with cancer, Prosser has only missed entering his work in the “Art is Ageless” competition one time since 2015 because of another surgery, and he’s built up a trophy collection of more than a dozen blue ribbons during that span. Prosser’s quick to deflect his success to a key figure in his life, however: his mother, Roberta.

“Well, first of all, I think any talent I have I inherited from my mother,” Prosser said. “I have a number of her pictures. I got it from her, probably, because she was always painting on the walls (of our family home).”

Her influence was clear, as Prosser studied art at Drury University in Springfield. Today, her works, including many acrylic and watercolor paintings and a framed photograph of one of her old wall-size murals, are also displayed around the Prossers’ home. The mother-son pair even showed their work together at the Presbyterian Manor a few years back, when she was in her late 90s. It was her first art show, Prosser said, before she died at 99.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Many works by Rick Prosser’s mother, Roberta, are displayed around the home.

His wife, Charlotte, seems to have been just as influential; his “Universe in Motion” matches a crocheted afghan she made, which rests on the back of a chair in their living room. The pair will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary this August.

“Although, you never know when enough’s enough,” Prosser joked. “I don’t mean that; I don’t want to give her any ideas.”

Prosser’s favorite work he’s produced is a painted portrait titled “Lady.” Prosser said he sees his mother and Charlotte in the purple, silhouetted face. He doesn’t create much portraiture, but this painting seemed to come easily, he said.

Prosser’s work tends to depict more still-life scenes or abstract shapes. Some of the latter pieces are almost like optical illusions.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

A number of Rick Prosser’s works are pictured here. On the left is “Nana’s Rose,” a needlework piece Prosser made in honor of his mother, Roberta. An acrylic painting, titled “Lady,” leans against a stool Prosser embroidered with a flower pattern.

Along with the visual arts, Prosser also loves playing the piano. The Prossers have two of them in their living room, and one of them — an upright positioned in a corner — has been with Rick since shortly after their move to Lawrence more than 50 years ago.

“I’m very proud of that; I love to play it,” Prosser said. “I’ve never had lessons.”

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Rick Prosser sits at his upright piano, which he’s had for more than five decades. Two more of his works are displayed on the walls to his left and right, one a needlework and the other made using ink pens.

As for what sort of piece might end up as the submission for next year’s contest, that’s still up in the air. Prosser said he isn’t the type to think too far ahead; some pieces he mulls over, but others “just happen.”

Nevertheless, he has one idea for a submission, and it could involve an existing piece that he adds to. Prosser is of the mind that his work is never done. He’s constantly re-examining and thinking about ways he could improve his initial concept — a mindset that he attributes to a former art teacher.

“I had an art teacher early on, and she said ‘Don’t throw anything out,'” Prosser said. “If I was painting something and I didn’t like it, I’d get rid of it. … I’d throw it away, didn’t want to look at it, it’s bad. She said ‘Don’t throw anything away, whatever you do. Keep everything that has anything to it. Keep it, save it. Later down the line, you may come up with a good idea.’ She was so right.”


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