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How would your life stack up?

Artist Holly Rose, part Cherokee Indian, makes totem poles. You come to her with a story. Without one, no totem. You tell her your story and she translates it into an elegant stacked set of symbols. Can't be a long story. The ceramic pole is only about 2 feet high. But it should be a truthful one, no matter what.

Rose's own life story is on display on a totem at Harborside Studios in Safety Harbor. The studio is operated by UPARC for artists with disabilities. She goes there four days a week to work with clay and paint. Her own totem symbols - an eagle, bear, wolf and tepee - represent her 46 years and all her dreams.

The Eagle

Holly Rose flies. She "mind travels" millions of miles. You see her in her wheelchair, but she could be drinking tea from a chipped china cup at a teak table in Timbuktu. Or she could be surfing in Hawaii or kiting over the Colorado River. She learned to mind travel to free herself from the cerebral palsy she was born with.

"I travel out of body anywhere I want. When I've had enough, I just go away."

She also does "walkabouts" with her wheelchair. "The chair is my legs. I get out on U.S. 19 and wherever the chair goes, I go. I take my water bottle and just go."

Walkabouts maybe saved her life. She was on one about two years ago - wheeling down Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard - when a kitchen fire destroyed her apartment.

"I'm a human being. I want freedom."

The Bear

"You can't be afraid in life," Rose says. "You're never going to understand life if you're afraid." The bear represents her strength, her willingness to face life. "You take the knocks and the bruises and you try."

She has had 27 surgeries. She spent most of her childhood in state hospitals and schools. "I was born small enough to put in a shoe box." She had walked as a child, but a doctor removed part of her hip - very much against her wishes - when she was 14.

Rose says she tells mothers of disabled children "don't mother them, don't smother them with love."

She leans forward in her wheelchair when she speaks and gestures with her hands. She never breaks her stare.

"Mothers want their children to be normal. If you know what normal is, call me and tell me.

"Let children go forth and conquer."

The Wolf

The mother wolf and her den represent her connections to loved ones. She has five brothers, a sister, five nieces, a nephew and a great nephew, scattered everywhere but close to her heart. They are her pack.

The Tepee

The tepee is the kind of home you can pack up and take with you. Permanence is the last thing she wants. The cycle of life beckons her.

"I consider every birthday a victory, one more year I've dealt with a world not ready for people like me," she says, her hand kneading a clay bowl.

She stares at you hard, with conviction in her voice.

"When it's over, my spirit will be free," she says. "I can't wait."

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

"Mothers want their children to be normal. If you know what normal is, call me and tell me."

Holly Rose

THE STORYTELLER

Harborside Studios

176 Fifth Ave. N, Safety Harbor, is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. An open house is held from 7 to 9 p.m. every third Friday of the month.

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