From coma to canvas: an Oceanside photographer’s journey


Oceanside photographer Penny Frondelli’s art exhibit at the Oceanside library not only showcases her collection of paintings but represents her tale of resilience and creativity bouncing back from her journey through a coma.

Frondelli, 65, has been a professional photographer for her entire adult life and has a passion for artistic expression in various forms. Frondelli has a background in art and attended the School of Visual Arts as a photography major, but her foray into painting began unexpectedly after a life-altering event. Two years ago, she experienced a severe allergic reaction to her diabetes medication, resulting in a double lung collapse and the need for a medically induced coma for seven days.

“I had got so dehydrated that my lungs stuck together,” Frondelli said. “I almost died. I only remember coming out of the coma and that was very frightening. My time in the coma is filled with stories from my family. I don’t remember the rabbi praying over me. I don’t remember being put in a prone position. I don’t remember the despair my family felt seeing me fade away.”

During her time in the coma, Frondelli’s family stood vigil, unsure if she would ever wake up. But wake up she did, and what followed was a challenging road to recovery marked by the inability to engage in her usual passion for photography due to its physical demands.

“My coma wasn’t the worst part of my story, my recovery was,” Frondelli said. “I was so weak, I couldn’t pick up my cell phone. It was too heavy. As I became stronger, I would take walks around the block, but I wanted to go shooting. I was rarely seen without my camera, but I couldn’t pick it up. It was so heavy. I was desperate to be creative.”

Desperate for a creative outlet, she turned to watercolor painting, despite having no prior experience. Her journey into painting became a form of therapy, allowing her to express herself and find solace in art during her recovery process. During her recovery, she explored watercolor painting as a form of therapy and found that it helped her regain strength and express herself creatively.

“I went to the art store and looked at watercolors, and I thought why not,” Frondelli said. “Those colors certainly woke me up. I was always drawn to anything tactile and visual. I knew composition and I knew lighting but I did not know where to begin. I have no skills or instruction, just an empty palette and the need to recover in my mind and my body. Every painting I did was stronger, more fluent and better than the last.

She sought guidance and reached out to Ralph Capozzi, a painting instructor for the Town of Hempstead. Despite not having any prior painting skills, with newfound guidance, she began creating vibrant and emotive artworks inspired by her surroundings, particularly nature and birds. Frondelli has been a passionate bird watcher for the last ten years.

“I had just started painting and I was lost,” she said. “I didn’t have any idea how to do this. I had no skills. I was always a photographer. I had an art background but I never painted. I was like, what can I do? I have concepts in my head, but I just don’t know how to put them down.”

Frondelli’s art exhibit features a collection of paintings, each bearing a personal significance. Notably, her first emotional response to a painting came with “The Cardinal,” a piece composed of 22 birds symbolizing her newfound ability to create beauty from nothingness. As she continued to paint, Frondelli’s skills improved, culminating in a diverse array of artworks inspired by her love of nature, her favorite movie “The Color Purple,” and her experiences in Long Island.

Frondelli’s art exhibit will be on display at the library until mid-June and her artistic journey reflects the power of creativity as a means of healing and self-expression. As visitors linger over her paintings, it’s clear that Frondelli’s journey from coma to canvas is far from over.

While she was recovering, Frondelli started the photo club at the Oceanside library to slowly get back into photography, and the club has been successful for two years. Additionally, she hopes to share her story and her art with others, potentially extending her exhibit to rehab centers as a form of art therapy outreach.

“My goal would be to take a few pieces with me and talk about how it helps in recovery to do things like this,” she said. “That would be amazing, if it could help somebody or inspire somebody in any way. Because this helped me get healthy.”