Dewey Blocksma: Art With Soul

Blocksma’s mother, Ruth, taught their school lessons at home, a British-built bungalow with mosquito netting over their beds, banana trees and 4-foot iguanas in the yard. Blocksma roller-skated on the marble floors wearing the Roy Rogers costume his aunt sent him. The artist’s soul was already beginning to emerge. Another aunt, an artist herself, advised Blocksma’s mother not to tell her children what to draw, just to provide the materials. Blocksma ran with it, painting murals of animals on the walls of their house. In the mornings he’d ply through the din and smells of the local bazaar with his mother, captivated by the hands making things like shoes, dresses and spoons.

Because he was a boy, Blocksma was able to play freely outside. Like the other boys in Lahore, Blocksma made his own toys, stubby whittled sticks or kites with strings coated in glass shards so the boys could cut each other’s kites from the air. He picked up the Urdu and Punjabi languages from his buddies and became his parents’ interpreter.

Summers, the family went to the foothills of the Himalayas and lived in a tin-roofed cow barn with parrots, butterflies, and monkeys in the backyard. His dad came up on weekends in his ’49 Ford. Blocksma says when word spread that the doctor was on his way, 50 or 60 people came tugging ill and injured people on rope beds and lined up at the door of his house. Around this time, something in this the artistic, talkative, toy-making child knew that he, like his father, would become a doctor.

The family made the transition back to the United States to the southeast side of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Once the culture shock of it wore off ("It was quite a jolt to me," says Blocksma. "I wasn’t used to having white guys around.") Dewey became a top student at Union High School, eventually graduating from Wheaton College and then Northwestern Medical School. In 1966, at age 26, he went to work as a student resident at the Mennonite Mission Hospital in Shirati, Tanzania, and flew to small villages to dole out polio vaccines and cared for people at the leper colonies on Lake Victoria. When it was time for him to leave, the industrious Blocksma hitchhiked on boats to catch a tiny plane, flew back to the United States for a moment before taking a job as a ship’s physician and teacher on a Norwegian school ship. Eventually, he became an emergency-room relief physician, working in short spurts in Michigan small towns where there may be only one regular doctor – Tawas City, Grayling, Albion, Hillsdale and Northport.

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