Signing to the Angels: Artist’s first book is memoir of foster child born blind and deaf

Signing to the Angels: Artist’s first book is memoir of foster child born blind and deaf

When foster parents accept the challenge of caring for a child born blind and deaf, they hope to change that child’s life for the better. They don’t realize, or even expect, that the child has something vital to teach them and others with whom the child comes in contact.

Shelly was just such a child. 

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Claire Muller signing with her foster daughter, Shelly. With her daughter being blind and deaf from infancy, the two spent a great deal of time in direct physical contact with each other to communicate. Shelly is the subject of Muller’s first published book, “Signing to the Angels.”

Her life made such a profound impact on her permanent foster parents, Claire and Tom Muller, that she inspired the publication of Claire Muller’s first book, “Signing to the Angels.”

The book, released last month by Dancing With Bear Publishing, is a personal memoir of Shelly’s life as a member of the Muller family.

In 2009, at age 23, Shelly’s body finally succumbed to the complications of her medical condition, Muller said. 

“Signing with the Angels” chronicles the two decades in which her adopted daughter grew up. In that time, Muller said, Shelly’s mere existence demonstrated what it means to live a life “fully in the moment,” taking joy in the “pure value” of her life’s experience interacting with the world.

She entered the lives of Claire and Tom Muller when she was nearly 3 years old.

The Muller’s are experienced foster parents. They have often made their home a haven for children and teens who are surviving and coping with life’s worst abuses.

The family are glad to provide a shelter for these kids until they can be placed in stable homes with families that will, hopefully, help them build a life beyond a nightmare existence.

But in addition to offering foster services for children who are physically healthy, the Mullers have also taken in foster children who are medically fragile. 

The children cope with a range of birth defects from Down’s Syndrome to heart problems to developmental disabilities like “Microcephaly,” Claire Muller explains in the book’s first chapter.

Once in awhile, the Muller’s  adopt them as a permanent part of their home, she said.

“We hear about these children and the challenges they have to face. It’s natural to wonder how God in all his infinite power could allow such things to happen,” Muller said. “Then along comes a child like Shelly and you realize that God blessed this Earth with her and others like her.”

 Shelly was born blind at the Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, the result of a birth defect in her digestive system. 

“Shelly’s gut was unable to absorb the calories and nutrients. Food and drink passed through her with very little of the nutrition absorbed,” Muller said.

The easiest way to explain Shelly’s blindness is that her body expended so much effort compensating for the defect while in the womb that the child was born without a developed optic nerve, Muller explained. 

But that was just the beginning of Shelly’s medical problems. She also developed a respiratory ailment that forced doctors into a treatment with the unfortunate side effect of stealing the child’s hearing.

“The doctors had no choice. To keep her breathing, they had to use medicine that took her hearing,” Muller said.

The result is that Shelly lacked the sense of sight and hearing from a very early age.

“In terms of being blind and deaf, Shelly was like Helen Keller. She never had a chance to experience the world in the way most children did,” Muller said. “But Shelly also had continuing problems being able to digest food. She was never able to eat and drink normally.”

The Mullers were contacted by a social worker when Shelly was just past 2 years old. The couple agreed to be Shelly’s foster parents. It was not long afterward that the Mullers adopted Shelly permanently.

“I am blessed to have a husband who never questions the children we foster parent. We both simply accepted Shelly in with our other kids,” Muller said.

From the beginning, it was clear that despite her physical ailments Shelly was intelligent and capable of learning, Muller said.

They brought in specialists to teach Shelly sign language and an “intervener” who taught the child the skills blind and deaf people need to orient themselves to place and successfully move about. They teach cane skills and how to navigate a room without sight or hearing, she said.

“One thing I learned is that there are great job opportunities for people to work with blind and deaf persons. It is a unique specialty and a rare field. There is a demand for the skills and the specialists get paid well for their services,” Muller commented.

But as Shelly grew, Claire became fascinated with how her adopted daughter interacted with the world. Being blind and deaf all her life, she did not develop the ordinary fears that most children learn growing up.

“She would explore in the yard, enjoying the warmth of the sun and feeling everything around her. If there was a snake nearby, Shelly wouldn’t react because she wouldn’t be aware of it. And even if she were aware, if it brushed by her, Shelly would be delighted by the sensation,” Muller said.

She and Shelly made frequent flights on a small plane to Columbus to visit specialists. Shelly loved the take-off and she was delighted if there was turbulence, Muller said.

“Shelly loved the sensory experience of the plane’s movement. She had no concern about what these sensations might mean.  Watching her, it made me begin to look differently at the world,” Muller said.

This lesson was not something Shelly only taught to her adopted mother. Her family, and others who came to know Shelly, often observed the pure joy the child took from the simple act of living in this world.

It was not always that way. Shelly’s condition gave her moments of sickness and sadness, Muller said. Her doctors wrestled with the complex challenges that her birth defect presented throughout her life. Shelly pushed them professionally. Eventually, however, the problems became insurmountable, Muller said.

The book, however, is not a tragedy. It is spiritual and meant to be as uplifting as Shelly was to her family and friends, Muller said.

“Signing to the Angels” is a celebration of a person’s life that was far too brief, but managed to be full of a grace one often associates with angels, Muller said.

“Signing to the Angels” is available direct from Dancing with Bear publishing at www.dancingwithbearpublishing.com. It can also be bought through most of the usual book selling websites such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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All proceeds from the sale of the book  will support Valley of Baca Missionary Retreat, an organization the Mullers founded to assist Christian missionaries on their visits to the United States.

 For more information on this service, visit www.valleyofbaca.org.

“An accident wanting to happen” – Ottis Tussey’s experiments in abstract

When asked to describe his style of abstract painting, Ottis Tussey said that his style is “kind of an accident waiting to happen.”

Ottis Tussey at work in his home.
Ottis Tussey at work in his home.

“I surprise myself at times. I start out with this vague idea and then something happens that changes everything or moves me to something else,” said Tussey.
If there is one thing that Tussey enjoys as much as working at his canvas, it is talking about art.
Not his art in particular, though he is happy to share insights into what he perceives are his strengths in the visual arts, but he also enjoys delving into the kinds of things that he enjoys as a spectator as well as a creator.

Whether visiting the museums or churches that house the world’s great masterpieces or perusing the unheralded work of artists in the local art galleries, he has developed an appreciation for the image and the craft on display.
“I love to see the work of talented artists and the incredible things they do. When I visited Rome some years ago and saw works by Michaelangelo and other great Rennaissance artists, there were times when I would just tear up. They could do anything,” Tussey said.
That statement is also true of artists with whom he has come into contact at his home at Lake Carnico in Nicholas County, Kentucky.
“Several of my paintings are at the Z-Gallery in Carlisle [Kentucky]. Louise Zachary’s place features several wonderful paintings as well as  beautiful hand-made quilts and woodworking.
“And then, of course, I have several abstracts at the [Licking Valley Campus, Workforce Solutions] art gallery in Cynthiana, where there is also many beautiful works. I am particularly fond of the paper mosaics that Mrs. [Claire] Muller creates. Those are stunning,” he commented.

“I surprise myself at times. I start out with this vague idea and then something happens that changes everything or moves me to something else,” said Tussey.

Though Ottis Tussey has dabbled in art throughout his life, it has only been within the last five years that he has applied himself to developing his artistic skills.
Tussey prefers to work in abstracts. In the years since he has taken up painting, he has been quite prolific.
“I am not accomplished at drawing figures or detailed images. As I’ve been working, I find that I don’t care so much for portraits or scenes as much as I enjoy the interplay of vivid colors on a canvas,” Tussey said about his work.

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Vivid, colorful backgrounds are a hallmark of Tussey’s style, particularly in his recent works.
In fact, there are times, he said, when he has labored so hard to create these colorful backdrops that it takes time to muster the nerve to add anything to the foreground.
“I love the interplay of colors and how they react with each other and with different types of canvas,” he said.
In recent months, he has been working with aluminum foil as a canvas, admiring how the reflective quality changes the nature of his acrylic paints.
In another painting in his home, he achieved an unexpected effect when water from a garden hose splashed against the canvas, creating a fragmented effect to which he was able to add his own designs.
However, some of his most striking abstracts have been captured using glass as his canvas. Several examples of his glass paintings are on display at the art gallery in Cynthiana and unframed at his home.
Perhaps the most important element in his development as a local artist is a level of personal confidence that he has in his work.
“I think I have reached a point where my work has achieved a recognizeable style. It was something that I did not have at the beginning. But these days, one can recognize work that I have done,” Tussey said.

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He attributes his growth to a certain discipline in his approach. Though he does not keep a regular schedule of time painting, he makes the effort to be at the easel working on a piece even if he is not particularly inspired to do so.
“I cannot develop if I let things go for too long,” Tussey said.
Regardless of whether he is happy with his work, he also makes an effort to carry a project to its end.
“The hardest thing for me is getting a new idea. I can only paint so many seagulls or random images. When I was getting into this, I thought that I always needed to wait until inspiration happens before starting in on a new painting. But sometimes, it’s just important to get in front of an easel and do something,” Tussey said. “If I don’t like it, I can just as easily paint over it. And having the painting underneath creates some interesting textures that I can use.”
With the coming holiday season, Tussey is following the lead of fellow artist Herby Moore and offering discounts of up to 20 percent on his paintings at the LVC gallery in the Harrison Square Shopping Center in Cynthiana, Kentucky.

“I don’t charge much for my paintings, so this discount is a real bargain for my work,” Tussey said.

Kentuckyana Jones and the Cave City Wax Museum

****** Note to Readers of this story: Since this story’s publication in August 2014, I have endeavored to verify the developments that Michael Todd Barrick, aka Kentuckyana Jones, outlined in our interview. I make frequent trips to Cave City, Kentucky and often journey the highway which runs right by the former Cave City Wax Museum. To the best of my knowledge, nothing has been done to rehab the property, though I have received unconfirmed reports that its contents, whatever they may have been, were removed at some point. Who knows when that could have happened. Furthermore, there is no indication that Mr. Barrick has followed through on his grand plans for Patriot trees. So, visitor, take what you read in these next paragraphs with only a few grains of salt. There seemed at the time, to me at least, a good faith effort on Kentuckyana’s part to realize a dream of reality TV stardom on E, A&E or some other ailing television channel desperate for original material. But the dream has, as yet, not materialized. So enjoy the following not so much as factual information, though the events of that Thursday afternoon did happen, but rather as fictional entertainment featuring an also-ran in the sweepstakes for a place in contemporary Kentucky folklore.****

At Battlegrove Cemetery Thursday morning, 2014, people may have witnessed an unusual sight — a camera crew at the military memorial with their lenses fixed on Bob Owen and a smiling, bearded stranger gathering a soil sample from beneath a veteran’s plaque.

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Or, on Thursday afternoon, people might have seen the same camera crew entering the Maysville Community and Technical College, Licking Valley Campus’ Art Gallery following the bearded stranger with one arm draped around the shoulder of local artist Herby Moore.

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People didn’t have to look far to find out the name of the stranger. It was written in florid script on three large vans out in the parking lot.

Kentuckyana Jones, The “Extreme” Treasure Hunter.

Jones, a business entrepreneur and trader in antiques, treasures, and rare collectibles, was a featured guest star on an episode of “Barry’d Treasure,” a reality show on the A&E channel starring celebrity antique dealer Barry Weiss.

The episode, “Kentuckyana Jones and the Emperor’s Vessel” aired in March 2014.

But it wasn’t for another person’s television show that brought Jones to Cynthiana last Thursday.

The Bowling Green native was in town shooting footage for a potential television series of his own.

Jones said that a part of the show  would chronicle his adventures searching for valuable artifacts. The objects that he sought in Cynthiana, however, were not hidden or even remotely hard to find. The sample of Herby Moore’s paintings, which Jones wanted, were all in plain sight in Moore’s space at the LVC Art Gallery.

Unlike other places he plans to visit, Jones did not choose Cynthiana at random. He has a very special connection to Moore and, therefore, to this community.

“I bought Herby’s wax museum in Cave City,” Jones said.

Jones has been friends with Moore since the sale of the wax museum. Growing up in Bowling Green, Jones was very familiar with the tourist attraction in Cave City. But he never thought anything else about it until one day when he saw that the building was for sale. It was a spontaneous decision to make an offer for it, Jones said.

“It may not be the way most people do business, but I like to fly by the seat of my pants sometimes. I like taking risks. America was built on the shoulders of entrepreneurs who’ve done the same thing,” Jones said.

Moore’s paintings will feature prominently in Jones’ long-term plans to transform the wax museum into a new area tourist attraction. He intends to create a museum dedicated to America’s veterans, a subject that Jones is as passionate about as he is negotiating a good price for an artifact.

Honoring veterans will also be a critical part of the show that Jones and his film crew are currently shooting.

“We’re dedicating a large chunk of our show’s time talking with the families of veterans who have already gone on. At the end of every show, we will have a ceremony where we go to the veteran’s gravesite with a family member and gather a soil sample,” Jones said.

Jones paid a visit to local Cynthiana resident Bob Owen on Thursday morning to talk about Brig. Gen. Jack Henry Owen, Bob’s uncle, who passed away about a year and a half ago.

During his military career, Gen. Owen flew a B-17 bomber in the European theater of World War II and survived two years as a prisoner of war, Bob Owen said.

There was no particular reason that Gen. Owen was selected over any other veteran, Jones said. “Herby is a friend of Bob’s and suggested he be a good subject.”

Jones has been to seven other states so far and done the same thing.

The soil sample taken from Battlegrove Cemetery will be stored in a vault for the time being. It is Jones’ ambition to get soil samples from all 50 states.

When he has accomplished that goal, he plans to donate those samples to the Patriot Soil Project, a national effort to honor veterans which Jones ardently supports.

The Patriot Soil Project is accepting donations of soil samples from the graves of veterans across the nation.

When completed, the project’s organizers will combine the soil from the gravesites of fallen veterans from all 50 states and used to plant a living memorial, a “Patriot Tree,” on the White House lawn, Jones said.

Other Patriot Trees will be planted on the grounds of the governors’ mansions throughout the nation.

For those interested in donating funds or soil samples to this effort, visit the website Patriotsoil.org for more information.

If all goes well, Jones has one more idea in mind:

He wants to plant a “Patriot Tree” on the grounds of the veterans’ museum in Cave City when renovation work is complete.

In the meantime, though, Jones will be traveling and meeting with folks, saving the memories on film and in the charateristic “thumbs-up” pictures he is taking with his guests and friends.