Somewhere in a small box stored at Dorothy Atkins' artfully decorated home is an old painting of a woman holding flowers. She painted it in seventh grade, when a child's dreams ought to be encouraged and never squashed.
"The teacher told me I had no talent for art and I would never be any good at it," she said recently. "I was crushed, just crushed. I come from the generation that believed when authority figures said something, you took it as gospel."
Atkins is now 72, an elegant African-American woman from San Jose with short, curly white hair and sparkling round eyes. Her paintings hang all over the classy and cozy one-story Berryessa home she shares with her husband, Richard. Several were featured recently at a cooperative gallery in Saratoga, one of Silicon Valley's meccas of fine art.
She bounced back from that teacher's nasty critique, but it was decades later and only after the deaths of her father and her brother, football legend Dick Bass. Atkins spent 15 years lobbying for his 2005 induction into the Bay Area Sports Hall Fame.
"I wanted it done so my dad could see it," Atkins said. "But he died a few months before. And then Dick died not too long after."
The twin deaths in 2005 and 2006 sent Atkins into a deep depression worsened by migraine headaches. After months of crippling grief, she bought some paint and brushes to try "art therapy," a relatively new method. It worked.
"Art has saved my life," Atkins said at her kitchen table where she usually paints. She was working on a typical painting for her -- four African women, stick figures really, in festive, tribal dresses. They have black necks and heads but no eyes, ears, noses or mouths. But somehow, they still exude happiness and optimism.
Her family's story begins in Mississippi, and is one she's reluctant to share.
"Let's stick to art," Atkins protested. "I don't want this to be about race. That's not what my father was about, not what Dick was about."
But she allowed a brief summary.
Her mother, Annie, was beautiful and black. Her father, Norman Bass, was tall, handsome, blue-eyed and white. Interracial marriages were illegal in 1942 Mississippi. Life would never be normal for them, so her father headed for California, eventually finding work and a house in a nice white neighborhood in Vallejo. When his black wife and their mixed-race kids arrived, the shocked neighbors employed all manner of threats to force them out. Her father took care of the problem one day by sitting on the front porch with a shotgun.
Atkins' parents then put discussions of race aside and concentrated on raising their children as best they could, encouraging them to excel at school, sports and outside interests. The neighborhood soon took its place in the growing Bay Area melting pot.
Atkins never told her parents about the art teacher's discouraging remarks. She's sure they would have urged her to pursue art anyway, but she didn't and can't explain it all these years later. Atkins instead set her sights on college and a teaching career.
Meanwhile, her brothers became star athletes. Norman Jr. played professional baseball and football and then became an internationally ranked table tennis player. Dick Bass became famous for his exploits on the gridiron. A sensational running back at Vallejo High, he played for the Los Angeles Rams from 1960 to 1969, amassing nearly 9,000 yards rushing, receiving and returning kicks over his career.
But that's not how sisters really remember brothers. Dick Bass had a favorite line of encouragement for his little sister: "Don't give up before the miracle happens!"
However, Atkins never became a teacher. While at a community college, she landed an entry-level job with the Bank of America, where she rose through the ranks to become a vice president.
Life and work were good, but her artistic spirit refused to die. As she commuted to San Francisco on BART, she sketched her fellow passengers and jotted down inspiring or clever captions. She filled dozens of sketchbooks over 18 years.
In 2001, she left the bank rather than move with it to another state, and began a greeting card business based on her commuter sketches, calling the line of cards "From Where I Sit." She was also writing letters to Bay Area sports writers, urging them to induct Bass in the regional hall of fame. It took 15 years.
"I had invested so much in getting him elected," she said. "It was a double whammy when he and my father died."
Months of art therapy produced nothing more than crude brush strokes. But in late 2006, she managed to lay down the image of a black, faceless woman in a purple dress.
"This was my breakout painting," Atkins said, holding it up with pride and relief.
She has since painted dozens of canvases, almost all of them faceless, black women who still reflect joy and sisterhood.
On the road back to art, Atkins met Shan Kelly Cecilio, a San Jose painter from the Bahamas who has become a friend and mentor. She expects Atkins will add facial features to her subjects soon.
"She definitely had the talent to become a professional artist a long time ago," Cecilio said. "There is still room for it. She's growing all the time, but I think she can do more. She tends to think too long about her projects."
Maybe that's because art remains a form of therapy for Atkins, but much less now than before. She has begun to write fiction, poetry, and plans to write and illustrate a children's book.
"I think my story can be a message for others in pain and sorrow," she said. "Don't give up before the miracle happens!"
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 and follow him on Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.