Woman doesn’t let MS slow her artistic passions
By Jeanne Millsap For The Herald-News July 5, 2012 1:16PM
Updated: August 7, 2012 6:01AM
MORRIS — Donna Orr was born with art in her genes. Her whole family was artistic, and her favorite medium was charcoal drawings. She even went to college to study advertising, which she found was a perfect fit for her art and her ambition.
A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 1988 at the age of 26, however, brought her dreams to an abrupt halt. Paralyzed in her lower extremities today and with little movement left in her arms, Orr all but gave up her creative side. Until just last year, when a unique opportunity presented itself to her.
Through a caregiver, Orr learned about a group that was designed exactly with disabled artists like her in mind. It was an association of artists that awarded grants to those who were not able to pursue their talents in the conventional way, but by the use of their mouth or feet.
Orr immediately realized what a gift this could be and applied to the program.
The Mouth and Foot Painting Artists was founded in 1956 as a way to help disabled artists attain self-respect, creative fulfillment, and financial security. The group is owned and run by disabled artists. Once accepted to the program, its students are given scholarships to cover the costs of materials and education and to produce art.
As students improve, their scholarships are increased, and many are promoted to associates or full members. The program is maintained through sales of members’ art as greeting cards, calendars, notepaper, address books and other materials.
For Orr, it was a “godsend.”
“I remember thinking, ‘People actually get paid to do this?’” she said with a laugh. “I’ve always been ambitious and energetic, but with my MS, I haven’t been able to do anything. Now, I get a sense of fulfillment. I am human, and I feel good when people say they like my paintings. I know it’s divine intervention. It’s given me an outlet, and it’s helped our family survive.”
To be in the program, Orr must do all the art herself. Her husband, Mike, or her grown children, Alec and Haley, or her caregiver get the watercolors in place before her, along with water and paper. They are allowed to put the paintbrush in her mouth, but that’s it. Orr does the rest.
A representative from the group visited her home for a demonstration to assure the group that she was, in fact, the artist.
Orr’s MS is not the type that involves attacks and remissions. Hers is of the primary progressive kind, which slowly worsens over the years. MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the myelin sheath covering some of the nerves in the brain, optic nerve, and spinal cord.
Her first symptoms were a lagging of one of her legs when she jogged and some blind spots in her eyes. She wasn’t horribly floored at her diagnosis, as she had a friend with a type of MS that came and went.
“We never knew it was going to get this bad,” she said.
‘The more I learn’
So far, her art has been watercolor landscapes, seascapes, and flowers, with one charcoal drawing of a lion. It was difficult learning to paint using her mouth, she said, especially trying to get the consistency of the colors just right.
“I was very intimidated,” she said, “and frustrated. I couldn’t get the pens to do what I wanted them to do. But the more I paint, the more I learn. It has come over time.”
Orr’s goal is to get good enough to be promoted to associate.
“Then I can go off my disability,” she said. “That’s one of my goals. This is not charity. We work for it.”
To purchase products from the disabled artists in the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, visit www.mfpausa.com.
To see video of Orr at work, visit http://heraldnews.suntimes.com/index.html.