PORTSMOUTH, RI (WPRI) -- Brian Conners mixes yellow with orange and strokes what looks like a blazing sunset on a canvas, not realizing he left a little acrylic sunshine on his face. Wiping the yellow blotch off his cheek is a problem for another moment.
‘Red Dog', as his friends call him, is a Portsmouth artist but he's much more than that. He's a father, a chef, a soon to be surfer, a survivor and without realizing it, a quote machine who could be a motivational speaker.
"You make a choice. Stay or go," the Portsmouth 44-year old says, looking back to 2008 when an infection tried to make that choice for him. "And if I was going to stay, then I was going to fight, man."
So, fight it was.
4 years ago, Red Dog was a fun-loving Middletown native, thriving as a chef in Florida. Then, like a bolt of lightning on one of his sunny paintings, a polyp burst and sent sepsis rushing through his body. Within days, he was on his death bed.
"I flat lined three times," he says.
But he survived, even though the infection took his legs below both knees and half of his right arm. A stroke followed and turned his left hand into a contorted remnant of what it was.
"I gotta' be here for a reason. I was gone."
Getting out of the hospital took two years, and learning to walk on his prosthetic legs took even more time.
"If I've learned anything in this world, it's patience," he says, pushing his legs onto his thighs by using the back of a chair.
And then after popping up on his shoes; "You know how long I waited to do this?" he asks. "Almost three years." He explains that he practiced every night to get his legs on by himself and when he finally did it, he says he ‘cried like a baby'. Eye to eye, he offers some of his humor, throwing his right arm in the air.
"Do you know what this is?" he says, hitting a hand with the end of what's left of his right arm. "A high none."
It's hard not to laugh with him as he tells us how he had to teach himself to walk, open doors, brush his teeth and to do just about everything else we do without thinking about it. As he relearned skill after skill, he also knew he had to cook again.
"One day I wanted an omelet. So, I had to figure out how to crack an egg."
Using both arms, he wiggles some duck eggs out of his refrigerator, rolls an onion onto his lap, nudges cheese off a shelf and zips over to his stove. Then, he negotiates an egg from the carton, balances it in the air and drops it in a bowl with a crack!
Fishing a piece of shell out takes a few minutes but soon he's buttering the pan, chopping with a specially made knife that wedges onto his right forearm and eventually flipping the omelet. "Just like a chef," says the Johnson and Wales graduate who started cooking when he was fifteen years old.
He used to paint to unwind following hard nights at the restaurant. He decided to try that again after buying what he describes as a kid's water color set.
"So, I'm stuck. I'm stuck in the chair," he says. "I'm pin-balling around the house. So, you better find something to do."
He found his unique style and method by accident.
"I spilled some paint and I swiped it up like that with my stump," he says, waving his arm in the air. "And I started doing that on the canvas."
He's sold some of his work, would like to sell more and held an art show at a local surf shop but painting is more than extra income for Red Dog.
"It brings me happiness. It brings me peace. It brings me a lot of tranquility. I mix my own colors and it's called ASP. All stump painting," he says to more laughter. "I get some physical therapy out of it because I'm using my hand. Also, it's really good for my head."
He's quick to point out that he did not recover on his own, giving credit to friends as well as a slew of doctors and nurses in two states. But he's modest about how hard he worked.
"Everybody's got something to deal with," he says between brushes. "It's how you deal with it that makes the difference."
Next, he plans to add another skill from his past, to his present. Red Dog is training in a pool to learn what he describes as a side stroke crossed with a dog paddle. Then, his goal is to get back on a surfboard to ride an Aquidneck Island wave or two before the coming winter.