Project Illumination // GUEST POST: Kathryn Beck

When we redefine ability, we unearth strength and dignity in unexpected places. When we redefine healing, we reveal beauty and grace in even the most broken things. Few people embody this thinking as vividly as our friend, artist, Kathryn Beck. This Summer, as part of the Joni and Friends Family Camp (see previous blog post), Kathryn was commissioned to paint my portrait for the Queen Esther-themed festivities.

Kathryn's portrait of me hanging in the background

Kathryn's portrait of me hanging in the background

Kathryn's unique niche is painting portraits of subjects with various special needs or disabilities ("Project Illumination") but painting them in a way that presents transcendent dignity and beauty...a redefinition, indeed. She shares with us her process of redefining ability and healing using her paintbrush. Kathryn, thank you for using your incredible talents to spread hope, not only to the subjects of your pieces but to all who encounter them and walk away seeing the world differently.

{You can see all Kathryn's work and find more information on commissioning your own piece at www.kathrynbeckart.com}


I probably couldn’t tell you the first time I painted or drew someone with special needs, since my sister Marsa has always been somewhat of a muse to me. Presumably she always will be. Even now I’m not sure if my artistic fascination with her springs from my appreciation of her gentle character and social complexity or her unorthodox beauty. Nonetheless, in 2010 I asked her to sit for me for a portrait. Most likely I was being lazy: I could tell my professor I wanted to paint my sister - because persons with special needs aren’t often portrayed - and it would be an easy ‘A’ that allowed me to paint one of my favorite subjects; however, I didn’t expect Marsa’s particular reaction to it. She was extremely reluctant and reticent throughout the process, and eventually began to cry when I asked to photograph her scars.
Painting of Marsa, 2010, inspiration project

Painting of Marsa, 2010, inspiration project

Marsa's feet, first photo shoot for Illumination

Marsa's feet, first photo shoot for Illumination

Marsa has a glittering pink line extending from her hairline to her tailbone, wide purple bands at her hips, and lavender marks stretching down the sides of her feet. Each of these is as lovely to me as the blue of her eyes and the blonde in her hair, and are as much a part of her beauty as her smile. Her embarrassment of them baffled me. Who had told her that they weren’t appealing? Certainly we hadn’t, and not her friends. Society had, without any of us ever realizing it.
Discussing the painting with Ben, the boy portrayed

Discussing the painting with Ben, the boy portrayed

Project Illumination might simply be a visualization of morals passed on to me from my parents. That is, that one should be kind to everyone you meet, and that you should include everyone at the party. With the Illumination series, I could celebrate the achievements of friends and families with special needs and share them with a wide audience. Each painting would illustrate the beauty I see in my participants, while introducing a facet of life that many don’t understand happens in nearly one-fifth of America’s population. In 2012 I had a chance to create five works and work with five families to make that series a reality, and the process continues today.

Painting Katherine Wolf was something I considered even in high school - nearly six years ago - and it came as a joy and a blessing when I a friend approached me to paint Katherine for her session at Camp ASCCA. The photograph I chose to work with had the ethereal quality that I admire, and without any background information I went ahead and began sketching out the painting. Within the first few minutes, I was crying in front of the canvas for no particular reason except that it was so beautiful - which, I know, sounds strange from the artist herself, but my best work seems to spring from somewhere that’s quite out of my control. In fact, the project came at a rather tumultuous time in my own life, and I was unexpectedly calmed and centered by the work as I reviewed her video and thought about her life and accomplishments. Katherine’s own message of hope repeated in my head over and over until the painting seemed to finish itself. That creative process is very indicative of every painting process in my Illumination series, and reaffirmed for me something I had forgotten: That this is how my talents should be used.
Thank you, Wolf family, for allowing me access to your life and sharing it with the world! Your generosity continues to change lives for the better.

Redefining Ability

One day, Katherine's body worked as any 26 year olds' body should work. The next day, and the next thousand days, and today, it does not.

Though many abilities have since returned, the words of an early rehab doctor ring in our ears with deafening reality, “some of your problems will be persistent and some will be permanent”. The question cries out, “will any of the problems ever be over?” Perhaps this very question is the one that beats through all our hearts and falls from all our tears.

This great reversal in our lives, from ability to disability, has at times left us feeling upside down, disoriented, struggling to swim toward the direction of the surface as our lungs cry out for air.

Living in a body that is NOT ABLE has been suffocatingly heart-wrenching for Katherine and those who love her, but more recently, it has also been unexpectedly and profoundly life-giving. Perhaps the true great reversals in our lives are those that come on the inside, after we've experienced what we thought was the greatest reversal on the outside.

As Katherine often says, “what I am showcasing on the outside is what we all are feeling on the inside”.

Whether or not we have the courage to embrace the finitude and fragility of our own bodies and brains, the fact remains, not one of us is truly able. If not in body, then in spirit, we are all disabled. Perhaps those who have experienced physical disability have a unique advantage in this regard because we are under no illusion that we can do anything on our own. Yet the recognition of inability is not defeat but rather the beginning of finding real hope.

Early in the Summer, we were given a chance to share at a camp for families with disabilities, put on by one of our favorite ministries, Joni & Friends. It’s strange to be leading something that you could just as easily be attending, yet we shared encouragement as best we could to families dealing with loss and questions and heartache. The theme was Romans 15:13—“overflow with hope”—woven through with the story of Esther. And yet, before you can be so filled with hope that you overflow with it into the world, you must know hope, and before you can know it, you must recognize that you need it.

When teaching from Esther, we were inspired by a sermon from our new pastor, Dr. Drew Sams. Instead of the typical encapsulation of this story being “for such a time as this”, chapter 9, near the end of the book, presents a newfound, breath-taking mantra…“when the king's command and edict were about to be carried out, on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred”. Those three words resonate in our souls today because they are the hope on which we hang everything--what should be the end is just the beginning, what should be death is life. In this story, and in all our stories, the reverse occurred not because the people did anything but because God did everything.

That week we encountered stories of families that will always be with us, stories that will inspire us and break our hearts. We saw transformations occur, metamorphoses from despair to hope. We witnessed children with major physical limitations do physical things, ropes courses and water slides and horse riding, that they never thought they could do, and it changed them. And we too, as the leaders who could be campers, were changed. Katherine played the role of Esther in a skit, and embodying the wheelchair bound beauty contest winner (beating out the able-bodied contestants) in front of a wheelchair bound audience, made her sit up a little prouder in her chair. We felt a burden and an ownership for ministering to the disabled community that we have never felt before.

And then, as we were leaving, one of the volunteers, who paid his own way to attend, to come alongside these families and love them well for the week, approached us with tears in his eyes sharing that he had terminal cancer. It was his wish to be in and among these families, these living reminders of all our inabilities and all God’s abilities.

We are not alone in disability. It’s a reality all of humanity shares at its core. But more than that, we are not alone in our disability because God is there with us, to show us himself in ways that are hard to see when we are blinded by the illusion of our ability. In that revelation, the greatest reversal occurs within, and we can began to overflow with hope.