BAR HARBOR — Many who loved her said in-person goodbyes to Helen Douglas last week at a gathering in her front yard on Route 3 that included live music, crystal singing bowls, art and other symbols of their admiration for a life well lived.
Douglas was diagnosed with cancer in January and died on Friday at her home, surrounded by art and loved ones.
In her 87 years, she influenced and connected with many through her creative, artistic endeavors and healing arts. Douglas became a Reiki Master four years ago and told her daughter, Laura Johnson, “I should have been doing this all along.”
According to those who knew her, she was a healer long before the official title was earned. Douglas, who studied at the Eliot McMurrough School of Art in Indialantic, Fla., in the 1960s, was creating as long as she was able.
“She was always into something,” said Johnson. “Even at 87 years old, she was designing web pages.”
Her love of art was the undercurrent of the connection she made with many people, including Janice Strout, a cousin and close friend of Douglas.
“I started getting to know Helen through an adult–ed class,” said Strout, adding that Douglas became her personal painting instructor following that class in the 1990s. “For all of her paintings, you had to know where the light was. She always knew where the light was… Once she couldn’t hold a paintbrush, she did fingerpainting. She thought it was hilarious.”
Douglas owned several art galleries throughout the years and helped found The Flounder Society, a space where exhibits were chosen by a jury. In addition to art, there was often music, food and community connection in that space as well as many others she found to host events.
“She just gathered creative people — good, bad and ugly — it didn’t matter,” said Strout, “but it was so much fun.”
Fun was a big part of everything Douglas did, including the healing shows she offered on her Reiki Oasis Facebook page. Many of her sessions, which focused on removing negativity and infusing positivity, ended with also adding some fun, Strout recalled in a conversation with the Islander.
“She always wanted to put fun in you,” she said, explaining how her friendship with Douglas was full of laughs. “We could just be having the most serious conversation and take a serious turn in the opposite direction. Nothing was off the table, there were no secrets. We just had so many laughs.
“To have a friend you can laugh until you cry with is really something,” she added. “She was wicked fun. Her creative process just couldn’t be stopped. She was always evolving.”
This is evident by Douglas’ multiple (at least three) Facebook pages featuring her work, including Window Shades (Shades d’Art) in which the shades she designed with fellow artist Kit Hathaway are featured. Currently installed in the palliative care units of MDI Hospital and Maine Coast Memorial, the shades are made of satin and are translucent with a stained-glass appearance. The idea is to give patients a beautiful scene to look at during a difficult time.
Window shades were one of Douglas’ favorite places to display her art. Those on the porch of her home feature sunflowers and black-eyed Susans for passersby to enjoy.
According to Johnson, the black-eyed Susans are a reminder of someone especially dear to both of their hearts, Marty Douglas. At age 10, Marty was killed in an incident involving a gun at a friend’s house. He was Laura’s first child and Douglas played an integral part in raising him. In the wake of his death, Marty’s mother and grandmother turned their sorrow into advocacy for gun safety. Douglas pursued legislation to pass laws in support of gun safety and succeeded.
“Mom got it going to where we gave out free gun locks,” said Johnson, who spoke with her mom daily. “We always spoke of Marty. We like to hear his name. He’s always alive with us.
“We could have either dwelled in anger and been angry people, but mom and I chose forgiveness.”
One of the sayings Johnson remembers her mom spouting often was, “things are things, you can replace them, but you can’t replace people.”
“Once you lose a child, everything else is small,” said Johnson. “She never discouraged you from trying anything. If that’s what you wanted to do, you should do it.”
And Douglas lived by that creed herself. She was the type of woman who organized her own 75th birthday party complete with live music and about 300 guests. “All we did was dance for five hours,” said Johnson.
In addition to her patented lampshade designs, her many paintings and other artistic creations, Douglas began sewing her own clothes.
“She always made her own clothes in the end, whether it was a shower curtain or a tablecloth, you never knew,” said Johnson, adding there will be a celebration of life later in the summer with the hope of attendance restrictions lifting. “God knows how many people will be there.”
In lieu of flowers, Douglas’ family is asking those who want to share in celebrating her life make donations to the re-establishment of the Marty Douglas Scholarship Fund at the Mount Desert Island YMCA or the Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor.