The Armless Artist

A story on my local TV news station about a high school artist recently caught my attention. This student, Sonia Boyer, is no ordinary artist however. A 2016 graduate of Richfield High School, Boyer has something special about her that sets her apart from most 18 year-olds--she has no arms. Abandoned by her birth parents in India shortly after she was born, Boyer's Minnesotan parents adopted her from an orphanage when she was 15 months old. And since bringing her home nearly two decades ago, they've always encouraged their daughter to go after her dreams.

Despite her disability, Boyer doesn't let the fact that she was born without arms get in the way of pursuing her dream of being an artist and going after what she wants in life. Winning awards and developing a substantial portfolio of work, she's already proven herself to be gifted at painting, drawing, and pottery--all by using her feet and toes.

"Everybody you know has some kind of an issue whether you know about it or not," said Boyer's mother in the KARE 11 News video clip, recalling advice she's given to her daughter. "The thing is you have to figure out how to work around it."

This story resonates with me for several reasons. While I was fortunate to be born healthy and with all of my limbs, I have fought against my own physical obstacles and disabilities since my first RA symptoms emerged when I was 17. RA swelling and pain often renders my wrists, hands, and fingers unable to function properly, and sometimes when I'm feeling at my most desperate, I wish I could just cut them off. Instead of being perhaps the most personal, effective tools I have in life, these body parts turn into a major hindrance--useless, pain-radiating appendages that remind me of what I can no longer do.

Like Sonia, I was also a high school artist; I began loving and creating art as far back as pre-school, I think. In elementary school whenever we had to answer the question of "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I always replied, "Artist." I think I might still have some of those faded school papers with my confident career aspiration scrawled across them. Artist. I'm going to be an ARTIST!

Passionate about drawing, painting, and expressing myself through my artwork, I used to spend hours and hours happily in my own little world, sketching, shading, or swirling paint across a canvas. However, once my fingers suddenly began swelling for no reason during 12th grade, accompanied with severe pain, I could no longer grip those pencils and paint brushes. Buttoning up my shirt or pulling my hair into a ponytail in the morning before school was barely possible, never mind keeping up with my artwork. There goes my art career, I remember thinking, with great sadness.

Since my RA diagnosis the summer after I graduated high school, which is many years ago now, over the years my dreams of being an artist often got sidelined. The new, terrifying diagnosis of an incurable and painful disease while trying to continue being a 4.0 student full-time at college didn't leave much time or energy for art.

And after graduating from college? I don't know where that time has vanished to, but I suspect that RA selfishly sucked up most of it. Those days/weeks/years are a foggy, monotonous haze of medical appointments, prescription refills, phone tag with nurses, health insurance red tape, surgeries, and unspeakable physical and emotional fatigue.

Before I get too depressing here, the good news is that I never completely abandoned my passion for creating art, despite RA's best efforts to destroy it. Maybe 5-6 years ago I started doing photography again, slowly building up a portfolio with the dream of actually getting paid to do this work that I'm passionate about and love. It's been slow-going, but I'm happily still taking photos and feeling inspired to work on photography projects. Hopefully the paid (and published) part of what I'm doing will soon become more of a reality.

While I'm still trying to stay engaged in photography, the drawing and painting I used to love doing has been neglected for a long time. However, I did take a watercolor painting class a few months ago, which stirred up a passion I thought was long dead. Even though I felt very rusty and unsure of myself in the class, it was great to hold a paintbrush in my hand again. Bent over a clean white piece of paper with a rainbow palette of colors next to me, I remembered what it used to feel like all those years ago being cocooned in my safe lovely "art world"--the colors and possibilities in front of me, open and endless.

Self-doubt and fear of failure are things that all artists and creative people struggle with, I'm willing to bet (unless you're some rare super-human). These obstacles to creativity are even more challenging for those of us with physical limitations or disabilities. It's often difficult to sustain energy, motivation, and inspiration anyway, never mind if you have the heavy weight of chronic illness dragging you down. This is why I think it's important to remind yourself that 1) your soul and creativity are stronger than your disabilities, 2) you're not the only one who's struggling, 3) chronic pain/illness/disability doesn't have to kill your hopes and dreams.

Learning about Sonia Boyer and watching the way she has adapted her life, using her feet and toes(!), in order to go after her passion and dreams makes me stop and think: Angela, if she can create art without arms, you certainly can find a way to do it too. Not giving in to fear and pain--not giving up period--is a crucial thing to remember. And I thank the tenacious, determined young orphan from India for reminding me of it.

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