Life-changing illness took WVU student back to her family roots
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. Three years ago, Laura Amtower thought she had just days maybe even hours left to live.
As a junior at West Virginia University, she found out she had a serious lung condition that kept her in the hospital for six months. During that time, doctors from all over couldn’t diagnose her. Still to this day, she has no idea what the illness was.
At one point, a doctor called her illness terminal and said her lung problem could spread to her heart overnight.
“My lungs were shutting down pretty rapidly. I had time to look back at my life and thought about all those people that made such a difference throughout history,” she said.
“I thought about what I could do to stand out like they did.”
For about six months, Amtower, a Keyser native, lived her life in and out of the hospital away from her friends back at WVU and her family members in West Virginia, as well.
She stayed there until she had enough. And, when she did, her lung condition went away.
“I was just tired of being sick,” she said. “I swear I willed myself better by positive thinking. It miraculously got better and I vowed myself to make an impression like all the people in my past have.”
At that point, she vowed to make a difference by connecting her past with her present one that she hopes will last for hundreds of years.
“I realized how short and fragile life is, and that paintings are something that will last a lot longer than me,” she admitted.
Amtower, a senior painting major who will graduate in May, had the opportunity in her five years at WVU to combine two of her biggest passions, family genealogy and painting.
Since she can remember, her family had spent its free time driving around West Virginia looking for courthouses, graveyards and libraries to research ancestors.
“I thought that was how everyone grew up. I thought that was totally normal until I came to college and realized it wasn’t. It’s very different,” she admitted.
Her family has researched up to 15 generations when the family settled in northwestern Virginia now considered part of the Mountain State. The family claimed their West Virginia native title in 1863, making Amtower a seventh-generation West Virginian.
Combining her interests, Amtower has spent her collegiate career telling her family’s story through paintings.
Instead of looking for dates in time, she has instead found her niche trying to tell each family member’s story.
“Instead of finding who fought in what war, I try to find out who made the best cherry pie and how to get the recipe. I try to get their energy and emotions in my paintings,” she said.
Despite having those passions, she never really connected the two until her professor at the time, Erika Osborne, suggested it.
“Her passion for painting really hit a new stride when she began to weave into it her passion for her ancestry, and the environments and structures that hold its artifacts. It’s as if melding these two interests created within her the desire to record her history aggressively, without losing the poetry of her medium,” Osborne said. “She is incredibly passionate about life, and this, in turn, surfaces with gusto in her artistic work.”
Since that epiphany, she has created handfuls of family paintings.
“My professors have helped me out a lot. They took the time to listen to me and really helped me along. It’s a really great program,” she said. “They really helped you develop into who and what you want to be.”
When she graduates, Amtower, who didn’t apply to any other schools for her undergraduate education, will move on to another state to pursue her Masters in Fine Arts.
“Nothing but West Virginia pride runs through my veins, because my roots are so deep here. I don’t want to leave. I really don’t,” she said. “But, I didn’t realize how interesting my story was until I left my small town. If I go somewhere else, I’ll realize even more and take that experience and bring it back here.”