Sherman woman finds escape from years of medical issues through her artwork: ‘I have hope’

SHERMAN — Virginia (Ginny) Niles Schaffer has always turned to art during both good and bad times in her life.

Whenever she isn’t feeling well, she said art gives her hours of reprieve.

“I found that I could focus on something for three or four hours and be in another plane and be away from my pain — from feeling sorry for myself,” said Schaffer, 76, a mother of three and grandmother of two.

For 13 years, Schaffer, whose watercolors are now on exhibit at The Sherman Library, has suffered from many serious medical issues. She was hospitalized four times a year on average.

“I was on this roller coaster,” said Schaffer, who is from Elmira, N.Y. “They didn’t know what to do with me. It was horrible.”

Her downward health spiral began in 2008 when she started experiencing reflux, which occurs when stomach acid frequently flows back into the esophagus. The reflux was caused by a hiatal hernia, which is when the upper part of the stomach bulges through an opening in the diaphragm.

She went into the hospital for a one-day surgery — but didn’t come home until three months later.

“That was on a Tuesday, and on a Thursday, I was scheduled to meet with friends for lunch and I never came out of the hospital,” she said.

While still in the hospital, doctors performed a second surgery, reducing her stomach to a pouch.

After being released, she had digestive complications and couldn’t stop throwing up.

Within a four month period, she went from 155 pounds to 90, and was placed on a feeding tube.

The following year, she still was not being able to keep food down.

She was diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease and learned part of her esophagus was damaged. She underwent an eight-hour surgery called an endoscopic gastrectomy, where part of her esophagus was removed.

In total, she had about eight medical procedures. Aside from gastrointestinal procedures, during that period, she had her gallbladder removed, was treated for three different kinds of Lyme disease and had pneumonia on four separate occasions.

Instead of physical pain, Schaffer said what she’ll remember most from that period is emotional pain.

“It was an emotional pain of not knowing if there would ever be an end. Every time I would feel better, I would say ‘I’m OK’ and then, maybe five days later, something else would come up,” she said.

After developing bleeding, she needed yet another procedure.

“For a year and a half, I was coughing up basins full of blood and no one knew where the bleed was coming from,” she said.

In June of 2021, doctors opened her up and learned her stomach and esophagus had attached themselves to her lower left lung — which was causing the bleeding.

She had surgery to repair that and her health finally started improving. Schaffer has not set foot in a hospital since then.

Escape through art

To date, Schaffer has sold about 12 pieces of artwork and has contributed to exhibits at the Kent Art Association, the Candlewood League of Artists in New Fairfield, the Putnam Arts Council in New York and the White Silo in Sherman.

She mainly paints landscapes.

She takes photographs of places and scenes she finds pretty, such as the Housatonic River and Quaker Hill — and even of her own property.

“I live on 10 acres and am surrounded by Audubon property with trails, so I walk and I take pictures and I sit on benches around my property,” she said.

She then goes home and paints from her photographs.

Linda Hubbard, who curates the art shows for The Sherman Library, said when she first saw Schaffer’s watercolors, it was love at first sight.

“Having run an art gallery in Beacon, N.Y. for over 13 years before moving to Sherman and curating the art shows at the Sherman Library for the last 4 years, I've seen a lot of artwork,” Hubbard said. “My home has a lot of paintings and photographs of artists that I love, and one of Ginny's has already found a home here.”

Hubbard said what she finds special about Schaffer’s paintings is the colors.

“She finds color in winter — the hues of a sunrise or sunset against the snow, the crystal clear blue of the sky reflecting on the water, the color in the foliage waiting for spring, and she uses this color, mixing it with vibrant contrasts,” Hubbard said. “The results using watercolors are extraordinary.”

Planning ahead

Now that she’s finally feeling better, Schaffer is planning the next steps in her art career — and in the rest of her life as well.

“This is the first time that I can plan something in life, that I have hope,” she said. “I never had a chance to plan for anything because every time I would try to do something, my physical needs would come up.”

She shares her home with her husband of 42 years, Edward Shaffer, 77, who has had his own medical issues — he has cancer and had open heart surgery two years ago.

Schaffer said when she’s home with her husband and working on her art, she’s at her happiest.

“Something happens inside my body where I start building up this excitement,” she said. “I sit in our little library with my husband across from me and I paint. We have the fire going — What could be better?”

Schaffer’s exhibit, called “Blooming in Winter,” shows more than 30 pieces of her work from 2006 to the present. This is her first solo show. Everything is for sale. The exhibit will run through Feb. 23. It can be viewed in person during regular library hours and online at

“I’m just so grateful that I have art in my life,” she said. “It came to me and gave me peace during times of darkness.” 203-948-9802