Artistry without hands

Jessica Jewett

Recently, a friend told me that I should write more about my life experiences, my disability, how I do things, etc., so that people can get to know me better. I admittedly focus more on topical posts rather than myself because I never want to give the appearance of being self-serving or self-centered. This friend has never steered me wrong, though, so I’m experimenting with letting you all, my readers, know me on a more personal level. I’ll be slipping in more blogs about my personal experiences and such to see how the response goes, and I’m beginning today by allowing you all to see how I paint, draw, etc. The drawing here at the top of this blog is one of mine that I never finished. Yes, that’s most of Scarlett and some of Rhett.

As you all must know by now, I’m technically classified as a quadriplegic. I have a congenital condition called Arthrogryposis. That means I cannot use my hands like the rest of you do and I never could. I also come from a family of artists. My mother and father are artistic, as were my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother. All of that artistic energy passed to both my younger brother and I. The problem was nobody expected artistry out of me when I was a toddler because I couldn’t use my hands. The lack of expectation actually fostered a sense of freedom for me to figure out how to get by in life on my own as much as possible, so as a toddler, I somehow got the idea in my head to do things with my mouth. Nobody really knows when or how I made this decision about using my mouth instead of my hands but everybody basically agrees that it was around age three. It just happened as naturally as any child taking an interest in beautiful, vibrant Crayola markers. My mother likes to say I must have read an instruction manual on my disability before I was born because I came screaming out of the womb ready to take on the world.

Due to the nature of my disability, I spent most of my time on the floor lying on my stomach. I didn’t get a wheelchair until I was ready to start school (and it was fabulous Barbie Corvette pink, naturally), so being on the floor so much kind of skewed the way I viewed the world. Nobody realized the way I viewed the world was messed up until I started learning to draw and write. I often drew everything completely upside down or sideways. Part of it, we learned later, was due to me being dyslexic. I was told drawing things upside down was wrong, so I tried training myself to do it the right way. Everything went slanted for several years, as you can see in this childhood drawing below. I was about 11 or 12-years-old at the time.

Jessica Jewett

Once I got a wheelchair and was in school for years, the problem corrected itself, and my teachers began putting me in every art class they could find. I began winning local awards in St. Louis (where I was raised), but I was a perceptive child, and I knew people were more fascinated with how I created more than the creations themselves. It was upsetting to me and I developed a bit of a complex about allowing people to see me in the creation process. Even as a child, I wanted the work to be respected on its own merits and not given awards for simply being the inspirational poster child for overcoming disabilities. I overcompensated by trying to learn as much technique as possible. By high school, I was technically proficient but I stifled my personal creativity in the process. Here are some pieces I did in high school.

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

My complex about letting people actually see me in the creation process followed me into adulthood. I still don’t normally allow people to see me actually doing things with my mouth and I’m always the first to make jokes about it before anyone else has the chance. I hadn’t really thought about it in a while but that beast raised its ugly head in West Virginia over the summer. I went on a PRS retreat and brought a pad and pencils but I never touched them. My friends asked me one day over breakfast if I wanted to draw, but I realized I was in a room full of people and abruptly said no. Among many people I respected there, including Ryan, the idea of putting myself in a position of being watched, in my mind, like an oddity, was too much to bear. So I avoid it. There are only three pictures in existence of me doing my painting or drawing. I had thought about posting a video months ago but I never got around to it, mainly because I’m not comfortable putting it on display yet. However, at this stage in my life, I can reconcile my discomfort with the curiosity that comes with being me. I live in this body, so it’s all very normal to me, yet I understand that it is a bit extraordinary to people not living in this body. I shouldn’t hide what I am or what I do.

This was a portrait I did in 2008, I think. It was somewhere around the end of 2007 into the beginning of 2008 and I gave it to the subject of the portrait. The pictures were taken by my brother because, at the time, I had been posting progress of the work and some people didn’t believe that I was actually disabled. I was accused of lying and faking my disability for attention, so my brother took a few pictures of me working on it to prove that I was telling the truth. (See, we get back to the freak show aspect of my life, as if it’s too bizarre and I must somehow be dishonest.)

In these pictures, I’m using a blending stump that is taped into a chalk holder. When you use charcoal pencils, most of the work is done with the blending stump, which is paper based, rather than the harshness of the actual pencil. I can’t put paper based things in my mouth or they’ll fall apart, so I found a chalk holder that would contain the blending stump. It protects me from swallowing unwanted things and makes the implement longer so I don’t injure my eyesight as much.

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

This next piece is one that I’ve never shown in public. I did it last summer as a birthday present for someone very dear to me. I have moved into oil painting and I find it much more to my taste (figuratively) than anything I’ve done besides charcoals. My friend – the one who advised me to write more about my own experiences – was here when I did it and she took the picture as I was getting started. With painting, the best way to do it is to section out the canvas first and fill in each square as you go. It’s a trick to reference photos without tracing that allows you the freedom to change things about a photo’s composition. That’s what I did with this painting – used image references to create something in my style. I tend to paint somewhere in between Realism and Impressionism.

I don’t actually handle painting chemicals. That would be toxic. I have to paint when people are available to help me, which would only be a handful of those who I trust enough to watch me. This particular painting took about 48 hours total to complete, broken up over a few days. It turned out a lot better than I expected given that I’ve never had professional training in oils.

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

Jessica Jewett

As soon as summer was over, winter brought on a constant barrage of illness for me though. I haven’t been able to paint much. It’s not a good idea to expose yourself to painting chemicals when your respiratory system has been under attack for months. I’m finally starting to get better though and I intend to get back to it. Maybe you’ll see more as time passes.

8 responses to “Artistry without hands”

  1. Betsy Craig says:

    I’m pretty much limited to stick figures when I draw so I’m impressed. Nice artistic creations there Jess. Thanks for showing us your art…I didn’t know you were into drawing and painting too. *In my best Scarlett O’Hara accent* — Well I declare, aren’t you the multi-faceted mermaid?

  2. Lorilei says:

    Jessica, thank you sooooo much for sharing this part of your life. You are truly amazing! You’re so down-to-earth, have an awesome sense of humour & truly a woman of many talents! Your art work is beautiful! I adore your blog & always look forward to reading each new entry. Thank you for sharing the wonderful, unique awesome person you are, with all of us!

  3. Mary Ciulla says:

    You are very talented and I look forward to seeing more of your work.

  4. inky_1 says:

    Well, Jessica, I can tell you I was amazed by your art before I ever knew you had a disability. I stumbled on your site when looking into past life work, and your art was one of the first things I looked at. I had no idea until later that you had a disability.

    I’m admittedly amazed by the how, but still, as ever, amazed by the art itself. It’s beautiful and moving…every piece.

  5. Mel says:

    I can’t do that and I have full use of all my limbs. *smh*

    You are so incredibly gifted.

  6. suzy dwyer says:

    i went to art school i have hande midget hands but they work and im not as talented as you

  7. Lisa says:

    I wish I had a fraction of your talent!

  8. Agnes says:

    I’m a person on the wheelchair but i tried to draw by mouth and belive me it is really difficult.But your pictures are so emotional nad you are a very talented:)

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