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.

Claire Muller: Finding beauty in paper colors

Claire Muller: Finding beauty in paper colors

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The Maysville Community and Technical College – Licking Valley Campus (LVC) in Cynthiana, Kentucky has an art gallery in it. It shares space with the job placement center in a strip mall at the Harrison Square Shopping Center. For such a small space, though, it features a surprisingly wide variety of local artists and their works.
One such artist is Claire Muller, whose work in paper mosaics frequently captures the attention of gallery visitors.
One of her most striking works is a portrait of a white horse looking over its stable door. The entire image is made up of carefully chosen bits of  torn paper arranged in such a way as to convey the image of the horse.
This image, as it is with all of her work, is unique in that the paper she chose to create  the image was from maps.

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It is tempting to infer a meaning from the intentional use of maps in the portrait, but as with most of her paper mosaics, the images on the paper are incidental.
There are two noteworthy exceptions to this rule in her past work. One is portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a print of which is on display in the LVC art gallery. In that portrait, Lincoln’s face is made up of important figures in Lincoln’s life while the background is made up of events in his life.
The other is on display in the dental office of Dr. Neil Rush. It is a pastoral scene of a farm fence. Some of the papers she uses intentionally depict farm animals enclosed by the fence.
Most of time, though, the torn bits of magazine merely provide the color palette for her images, she said.
The portrait of the white horse presented her an unforeseen challenge, she said.
White magazine paper does not conceal the print or the color on the reverse side of a sheet. The colors “bleed” through the white.
In her search for opaque white paper, she found her answer in maps.
“I was surprised to discover the vivid colors used in printed maps,” Muller said.
Maps of the sea come in shades of sea-foam or turquoise. Road maps have patches of yellow to contrast populated urban areas from the countryside, which are in shades of white.
The black maps that provide such a vivid contrast to the horse’s face are all taken from star maps and charts, she said.
The only significance in the images are in her initials. In keeping with her medium, she “signs” her work with strips of paper.
For the white horse, the pieces of her name are from a map of Verdun, France, where Muller was born and where her father, now a retired lieutenant-colonel, was stationed for a time.
As an army brat, Muller said it is difficult to say that she is “from” anywhere. She has lived in several places in the U.S. and abroad, including a brief stint from eighth to ninth grade in Kentucky.
Muller is neither a native of Harrison County nor a lifelong resident of the Bluegrass state. But for all the places she has lived so far, there is no finer place on Earth to live than central Kentucky’s horse country, she said.
“Horses are one of my first loves. My parents told me that ‘le cheval’ was the first word I ever spoke,” Muller said. “I consider France my home and I love returning there from time to time. But I’ve always felt at home in Kentucky,” Muller said.
Describing herself as a very “right-brained” person with a passion for creativity, her parents enrolled her in classes at the Art Institute of Boston.
“It was sort of a hole in the wall place when I took classes there, but it gave me an outlet to express myself,” Muller said.
Her art is a part of her life, but it is not the only thing.
Until recently, she and her husband provided foster care for medically fragile children. They have six children, two of whom are theirs biologically. The others are adopted through the foster care program.
The Mullers also support missionaries and their work. They coordinate a program that provides missionaries with a car while visiting in this area of Kentucky.
But art is an important aspect of her life, one that is more than just a hobby or a means to simply pass the time.
She has only been working in paper mosaics since about 2010. Before then, she worked in other types of media such as pastels, oil painting and papier-mache.
She was inspired to experiment in paper mosaics when she saw a California artist’s work during the 2010 World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park.
“I knew instantly that I wanted to try this. Magazine paper offers an interesting and vivid pallette of colors in which to work,” she said.
Not certain if she wanted to commit her first work to an expensive canvas, her first piece, a portrait of her husband and grandson, was put together directly on a blank wall in her home in Kelat.
Pleased with the outcome, she went on to create several other works, each a bit different and presenting a new set of challenges, Muller said.
Most people are familiar with her larger portraits: the white horse, the elephant, the swans, the lion’s heads. They are titled according to lines of poetry that have inspired her, she said.
But some of her most accomplished pieces are these smaller pieces. One of them, a 5-inch by 5-inch portrait of an owl, was a painstaking process. She used an exacto knife to cut fine pieces of paper to capture details in the feathers, beak, and facial expression.
She received compliments from friends and family on her mosaics. However, it is another thing to receive artistic validation from others.
Muller got that validation when she donated a small horse portrait for an auction in support of Horse-Aid, an organization dedicated to providing shelter for aging and retired horses.
She didn’t anticipate it would bring much to the organization, but every little bit helps, she said.
At the Fasig-Tipton auction, Muller was stunned to find out that the portrait  was bought for $3,000 in fairly competitive bidding. She was delighted that her work had brought support to a cause she cared about. It was also some personal validation for her work in this medium.
“My husband [Tom] is incredibly patient with me when I work on these mosaics. There is just tons of paper pieces everywhere in the house and kitchen,” she said.  “It’s no wonder I’ve been insanely in love with him for 37 years.”
Muller has no idea how long she will work in this medium. For the time being, it is presenting her some new creative challenges. But she knows herself and there will come a time when some new form of expression fires her imagination.