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Speaking From the Art

Silenced by cerebral palsy, painter and poet Jessica Vohs communicates with considerable effort and a passion stirred by her love of beauty.

At her Brookline apartment, Jessica Vohs greets you with a smile that makes Mona Lisa seem like a sourpuss. She grasps your hand with astonishing strength, then shakes back her long, silken black hair, pulls your face to hers, and gives you a lingering kiss on the cheek more affectionate than anything you were advised how to handle in Journalism 101.

She leads you inside, and as you watch her move, you can't help but think of her painting and her poetry, especially her watercolor of butterflies soaring up and away in a kaleidoscope of color, and her poem with the gentle admonition "You think life is hard. You are jaded by having it easy."

Finally, you're seated beside her, and you get to pose your question: "What is it about painting that appeals to you?"

Vohs turns her wheelchair to her Apple computer, and while her friend and so-called facilitator, Kate Finnegan, holds her arm for support, Vohs uses her right index finger to type, ever so laboriously, letter by letter: "T-h-a-t . . . I . . . C-a-n . . . S-h-o-w . . . M-y . . . L-o-v-e . . . o-f . . . B-e-a-u-t-y!"

Although she was born with cerebral palsy and cannot walk or talk or even communicate on a keyboard without assistance, the 34-year-old Vohs graduated from Brookline High School in 1993 and went on to study at the Massachusetts College of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, and at Kaji Aso Studio in Boston. She's done it by calling on her own courage and by relying on the determination of her mother, Janet, and the help of friends and professional caregivers.

Her paintings have been shown in New York and Chicago and are regularly exhibited in Boston. Among her fans is 1960s rocker Johnny Rivers. A collection of Vohs's poetry has also been published under the title Night Wind — "What good is rich and beautiful music if no one listens? I will listen for the night wind. I wait with open ears and open heart. I wait."

Long before doctors acknowledged it, Janet Vohs knew something was wrong with her infant daughter. When Jessica was 10 months old, a neurologist noted a curl in her toes and diagnosed it as cerebral palsy. For years, public schools found excuses not to admit Vohs: She'd hurt herself. No room for the wheelchair. Even a cooking class would be inappropriate, said one teacher, because Vohs might drool in the croissant dough.

"She was considered to have an IQ of 45," says her mother, "and they didn't think she could learn."

The breakthrough came in 1990, when Vohs was introduced to the concept of a facilitator to help her type. Suddenly, at 19, for the first time, Jessica Vohs was able to communicate her deepest thoughts. "That reversed everything," says Janet. "One day while Jessica was at her computer, I noticed she was matching words and pictures. Thinking she'd wandered into the wrong software, I said, 'Let me help you,' but she pushed me away.

"I was amazed. I pointed to a violin — I didn't think she knew what a violin was, but she put the pointer on the word 'violin.' I gave her something harder, a square with colored letters, a-e-i-o-u. She put the pointer on 'vowel,' and I ran around the apartment singing, 'Jessica knows violins. Jessica knows vowels.'"

Today, Jessica Vohs lives in a small apartment where the walls are lined with her watercolors. Personal assistants arrive daily to help her dress, cook, and eat. Twice a week she's visited by Finnegan, 46, who tutors her in art, assists her in typing, and recalls with a smile the first time she heard about Vohs.

"I was managing Kaji Aso Studio, and one day in 1997, professor Aso returned from a class to say that he'd met a physically challenged woman who could not speak but had sparkling eyes and potential.

"Jessica became his student, and he was proven right," says Finnegan, "because Jessica is sensitive. I see it in her work and feel it when I help her paint. As a facilitator, you have to be aware of her intent, all very sensitive, very subtle." In the beginning, her painting was abstract. To encourage specificity, Aso suggested she start with a mouse, a blob of gray, then give it a tail, whiskers, and make it her own.

"Out of that came a children's book on her website," says Finnegan. "We painted mice and put a story to the art, and from there we moved to fruits and flowers."

In a letter of recommendation to a jury of artists, Aso praised Vohs's strong visual intuitive sense and her patient layering of colors to create what he called deeply personal yet highly resonant art.

How far can she go?

"That's the unanswered question," says Finnegan. "I don't know, but she amazes me. In neuro-motor movements, you and I move arms without thinking. People with Jessica's condition have to think about it, but with practice — I would not cross out the possibility that she will paint without a facilitator. She's already progressed so that sometimes I let her hand go."

"Are you excited to be interviewed?" Finnegan asks her.

"Yes," Vohs types, "because everyone will read the story, and I want my feelings communicated."

What are your goals? she is asked.

"To become more independent. Disabled people need independent living space," she types. "I want to develop my artwork and help the world recognize that just because some disabled people are not able to communicate independently, that does not mean they don't have something to say."

Asked about the ring on her finger, Vohs smiles, blushes, then nods to Finnegan.

"She likes to pretend she's engaged to David Chockachi of Baywatch," says Finnegan. "It's a little fantasy."

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