When Alana Tillman was five years old, she found her passion: painting. But Tillman had to take on a unique technique to pursue the hobby. The Santa Rosa, California, artist was born with a congenital disorder called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC), which causes her shoulder and elbow joints to remain locked. She can’t raise her arms over her head or straighten them out, and she can’t move her fingers. So, Tillman learned to paint using her mouth.
“In preschool, when I was learning how to write my name, it was sort of the logical thing to do, ‘Oh, my mouth works so let me put the tool in my mouth,’” Tillman, now 33, tells SELF. “So it just came naturally.”
About 1 in 3,000 babies are born with AMC, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders. AMC affects joints by permanently restricting them in a bent or straight position. This is called a congenital contracture, and it affects two or more parts of the body for someone born with AMC.
Tillman was born with her arms locked bent and both her feet clubbed as a result of AMC. Corrective surgeries reset her feet so she could walk on her own, and Tillman began exploring art while recovering from those surgeries at ages five and six.
“A lot of times I was in casts and just sitting around the house, so painting and drawing really was an outlet for me,” she says. “And sometimes in the hospital I’d be sitting in bed so the only thing to do was to draw.”
She says she comes from a creative household-her dad’s an architect-and her art was always encouraged. Realizing she was pretty good, she kept at it.
“My parents never made me feel like I couldn’t do anything,” she says. “They never treated me differently than my other siblings. I’m a twin, and my twin was born able-bodied. But they never treated me different than her.”
Three of Tillman’s original masterpieces. Image Credit: Courtesy of Alana Tillman
Today, after studying fine art in college, Tillman is now a full-time artist, specializing in custom artwork and murals, as well as her own original creations. She paints in her kitchen in Santa Rosa, using plexiglass or plastic brushes. The paint lacquer on wooden brushes would come off because of her technique, she says. She works primarily with acrylic paint, and she’s part of the Mouth & Foot Painters organization. The group supports painters like Tillman by helping them purchase supplies and take art courses.
Her career has taken off, with a newly-signed contract with retailer Williams-Sonoma, who will sell her original art in their catalog come 2017. And, she’s recently gained Reddit fame, too. Last Thursday, a good friend-who considers Tillman family-posted a picture to the site of Tillman painting with her mouth, along with images of her stunning art. The post already has almost half a million views.
“What happened was I painted [my friend] a dog portrait for his dog that had passed, and I just did as a gift,” Tillman says. “So he decided, ‘Well I should probably share her story. I think other people would like to hear about it.’ So he posted it, and it just got a really great response. I’ve been contacted form all these different people so it’s been kind of like a whirlwind. I’ve gotten a bunch of commissions.”
The painting Tillman created for her friend after his dog passed away. Image Credit: Courtesy of Alana Tillman
Tillman’s happy to share her story, and she hopes it can inspire others and, maybe, help another five year old in the spot she found herself in.
“I’d really just like people to know that they can overcome any adversity, just with hardwork and dedication and trying to stay positive,” she says. “… If there’s a kid out there that could be doing the same thing as me, maybe I can show them that they can live a productive, happy life.”
Watch Tillman paint in the video below, created by California alt weekly newspaper The Bohemian:
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