60-Year-Old Art Scholar is Also a Cystic Fibrosis Fighter

Patrícia Silva, PhD avatar

by Patrícia Silva, PhD |

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Luanne McKinnon, like many cystic fibrosis (CF) patients, is a determined achiever who lives life to its fullest — even earning a doctorate in art history at age 60. Her story was the subject of a recent profile in The University of Virginia’s online newspaper, UVA Today.

McKinnon, who was awarded her PhD from UVA in May, is a distinguished scholar and curator who is passionate about Pablo Picasso’s work. Diagnosed in 1969 at age 14 and given five years to live, she defied doctor’s expectations by going to Europe to study. But in one concession, the then 19-year-old took her nebulizer – a microwave-size machine used to administer aerosol medication — along, determined not to let the bulky equipment hold back her ambitions. She wanted to seek out the beauty in life, even when reality seemed threatening.

“I was going to school in Rome. I was not dead. I was excited, I was happy. I dragged my life-saving nebulizer to Amsterdam, or Paris, or Venice, or Athens,” McKinnon said in the article written by Caroline Newman. “This is what I have been given. It was a pretty heavy suitcase to haul around, but I felt that I was strong enough.” Her adventures would eventually steer her to a career in the visual arts. “I think that there is a relationship between trauma and the desire for beauty,” she explained. “The uniqueness of creative humans just seemed to be what I needed to think about, what I needed to look at and to understand.”

After graduating with a Master’s in Fine Arts with an emphasis on  painting from Texas Christian University, she joined an art dealership in Fort Worth, Texas, in the early 1980s, before eventually opening her own private gallery, McKinnon Modern, in New York, where she enjoyed buying and selling post-World War II sculptures, paintings, and drawings by artists ranging from Cézanne to Warhol. But after the Persian Gulf War of the 1990s, McKinnon decided to move away from dealing art as a commodity. “I decided, right then, that I needed to return to the world of thought,” she said. “I wanted to be involved in what art history can do, which is opening our minds and our hearts to the true nature of the variances of creative genius that define the human spirit.”

She eventually met Lydia Gasman, a UVA professor and renowned Picasso scholar who would change the direction of McKinnon’s life. “She was eccentric, impassioned and brilliant, and helped launch the beginnings of my dream that I could return [to academia], at the age that I did,” she explained.

But as Newman’s article describes, demanding hospital visits brought on by worsening CF symptoms began to be increasingly disrupt McKinnon’s studies and work. As she repeatedly struggled her way back to health under the care of doctors at the UVA Medical Center, art history colleagues substituted in her classes while other friends visited to show their support. “Her friends came from everywhere to help her, from all of the places to which they had scattered,” said former Professor David Summers, who became McKinnon’s mentor after Gasman’s retirement. “I actually have never seen anything like it. She makes people feel that she ought to be alive, ought to be able to do what she needs and wants to do.” During one of her hospital stays, Summers wrote on a card to McKinnon: “You must love this life so much, to want to stay here so badly.”

“I thought it was such a wise thing to say, because it really did hit the nail on the head. I have fire in the belly, as they say,” McKinnon explained. “Despite all my misgivings about this torturous world — ongoing wars, disparity in classes, increasing poverty — I love this life and I always have. I have always been so curious about so many things. And I am so very fortunate to remain here, for now.”

In 2000, McKinnon met Daniel Reeves, with whom she shared an office for a semester, and the two were married in 2001 in Edinburgh, Scotland, where Reeves was a senior research fellow. The couple moved to Scotland and then to France, where  McKinnon began giving talks and continued her dissertation work on Picasso’s paintings, particularly his “Guernica” — an anti-war masterpiece depicting the bombing of the homonymous Spanish village.

The couple eventually moved back to the United States, but in 2010 McKinnon’s health began to decline, leading  doctors at Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto, California, to place her on the waiting list for a double lung transplant. The procedure, while not a CF cure, can substantially improve patients’ quality of life. She received the transplant at age 56, and began a difficult two-year recovery. Unable to work, she reapplied to the UVA art history program and, within two years, managed to finish her dissertation on Picasso, a work that one her first professors, Paul Barolsky, described as a lucid and extraordinary exploration of how beauty can come from tragedy.

Of her graduation four years after her transplant, McKinnon said: “Walking that land, being back, I had this palpable sense of how extraordinary my experience was there, and I felt so grateful to have gotten through the eye of the needle, to have done the work I had done, and to be alive, thanks in part to the care of those in the pulmonary care unit at UVA. It was emotional, a wonderful sense of sweet gratitude about what the place and its people have given me.”