UF linguistics professor creates watercolor artworks in a unique way

Jessica Elana Aaron, A University of Florida professor of Linguistics who has Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita paints with water colors in her home on Monday afternoon.(Matt Walsh /Correspondent)

The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 at 2:27 p.m.

Jessi Elana Aaron was brought to Oregon to get a better education, but she ended up discovering her passion.


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Aaron was 1 when she and her mother left Southern California for Oregon, where the public schools were more open to integrating a disabled student into regular classrooms. Aaron was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. In the womb, her muscles didn't fully develop and her joints are permanently contracted. She can't move her arms or legs. Her fingers have slight movement, but she can't grip.

For the first few years, the family lived with Aaron's grandmother, Ellen Gabehart, a professional artist. When it was time for her to paint, she'd escape to her studio in the garage.

Aaron would follow in her wheelchair.

She'd watch her grandmother swirl and dab watercolors on the canvas with a paintbrush. Soon, Aaron started to do the same — using her mouth.

"Because I grew up without using my arms, it was pretty easy," says Aaron, a professor of Spanish sociolinguistics at the University of Florida. "You just sort of do what you can with the things you have, so I think I just realized my mouth was something I could use."

One recent afternoon, Aaron, 32, sits in a small, naturally-lit room in her house painting a group of orange poppy flowers. She picks up a brush, pushes it to the side of her mouth and angles it forward. She bites down to grip it with her teeth. She looks back and forth to the computer screen, displaying a photo of the flowers. Her head moves downward with the brush and she taps the watercolor paint.

Aaron bobs her head up and down and moves her neck in and out, dabbing the paint on the canvas. Her movements are delicate and precise as she creates the shadows of the stems and darkens the center of the flowers with fine lines.

She drops the brush in the water and shakes her head quickly back and forth to rinse the paint off.

"Watercolor painting is just really free, and I get in a flow of things where it's more about seeing what happens and less about copying something," says Aaron, who also writes and types with her mouth. "You don't know exactly how the colors are going to bleed into each other so there's that unexpectedness of the colors that's fun to play with and be surprised by what comes out."

In middle and high school, Aaron mostly did pen and ink sketches. She took her first painting class as a freshman at Stanford University and continued through Painting III. She worked with oils, but never truly enjoyed the media.

"It was kind of mucky and annoying me," she says. "I couldn't rinse properly, and I was getting headaches from the chemicals because the paint was so close to my nose."

As she got older, college and work became her life and painting was put on hold. Aaron, who tested gifted at age 4, graduated from Stanford with a degree in political science and Spanish and a master's degree in Latin American studies. At the University of New Mexico, she earned another master's in cultural anthropology at the University of New Mexico and a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese with a specialization in Hispanic linguistics. She's traveled across the country and abroad, visiting Canada, Paris and living in Mexico for fieldwork and two study-abroad programs.

In 2006, she came to Gainesville to teach at UF.

Last summer, her grandmother came to visit and was disappointed Aaron had stopped painting. Aaron hadn't worked with watercolors since she was 6. Gabehart encouraged her to try it again. Aaron loved it.

Since she returned to painting, she now has a portfolio full of striking portraits, nature scenes and some of her seven cats. She enjoys portraits the best, especially people with "interesting looking faces." She's even sketching more.

"I don't have a car so I don't have a lot to do, so it's really given me something fun to do that's expressive," Aaron says. "I don't really love TV, and I can only read so many novels, and I can only grade so many papers. I wanted something else in my life that was fun and that sort of took me out of the same old, everyday routine."

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