EGG HARBOR CITY — Retired lifelong friends Bill Thompson and Bill Phillips both have a remarkable natural ability for art. One of them had to place the hobby on hold until recently.

For Thompson, making art began when Phillips bet him $5 or $10 to try sketching foxes, which proved to be an easy win. Sketching led to painting in both acrylic and oils — mostly great reproductions of works by Renoir and Monet — until a devastating stroke robbed Thompson of the use of his dominant right hand.

Phillips remembers it well.

“Bill was so down.  He’s got exceptional skill as an artist. He’s a self-taught piano player, too,” Phillips said. “I told him, ‘I know you lost a hand. You can’t use it no more, but God gave you a gift. Use the other one ... pick up a pencil.’”

And, after much prodding, Thompson finally did.

Today, a stack of 50 or more sketches are propped neatly on an easel atop his coffee table in his Egg Harbor City apartment. His inspiration comes from images he Googles on a laptop; others are borne of his imagination. 

His favorite subjects are outdoor settings — waterscapes, parks, as well as vignettes of a street in a vibrant city or a charming village.

Buildings, which are frequently found in his art, lend insight into the life of Thompson prior to his stoke.  He was a local career contractor for many years (often with Phillips).  Working with his hands has been a part of his life as long as he can remember.

“(Sketching) makes me happy. I feel good,” Thompson said. 

Among the vast collection of sketches and paintings, there is one single photograph above his couch.  It’s a small black and white photo.  In it, a much younger Thompson, Phillips and Phillip’s wife, Barbara, are in a Boardwalk photo booth posed in a replica of a table at the 500 Club in Atlantic City.

Gesturing to the photo, both Bills begin to tell yesteryear stories that are punctuated with playful barbs. They say they talk weekly by phone and get together as often as they can — Phillips lives in nearby Egg Harbor Township. 

Thompson said he’s grateful for both old friends and the new ones he’s made since moving to Countryside Meadow Apartments, where he lives alone. When needed, he also has support from a life skills specialist, Dawn Padick, at the Atlantic Center for Independent Living Inc. in nearby Galloway Township. Padick supports and assists him from time to time.

On this particular day, he tells Padick about a new goal.

 “I’d like to sell the drawings. Make a little money to buy more sketch paper. Maybe buy a steak,” he said smiling.

Padick said she’d keep an eye out for ways he can show his art at local venues, like the library and other local exhibits.  The center also features his work on their social media page.

For Thompson, friends he’s made along life’s bumpy path — which included the stroke and a divorce — have made a difference.  The art gives him purpose, pride and self-worth.

“It keeps my mind busy,” says Thompson.  Then, he adds, “And I’m thinking about trying to paint again.”

Part of Thompson’s collection of art can be viewed on Facebook page of the Atlantic Center for Independent Living Inc. 

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