Limitless: A Closer Look at Artist Sara Jane Parsons
Profile by Haley Bowen
I spent the weekend of April 16th with Sara Jane Parsons, an Austin-based watercolor artist from Minnesota, at her home in Austin. Her home was open, colorful, warm, and charming. The old wooden floors glowed with a history of footsteps and stories and the walls were covered with figure drawings, paintings she created, paintings from friends, and other eclectic ornamentation.
I met Sara at the WAS-H’s recent 39th International Exhibition. Before meeting her at the take-in, her painting struck a chord with me. As a neo-expressionist figurative artist myself, I appreciate the broken down form, an emphasis on mark making, and a bold composition. I watched as Sara’s portrait of a young child was unpacked and quietly hung on the wall for the masses to view opening night.
At the opening night of the IE show, a woman came in in a wheelchair, surrounded by a varied crowd of young adults. She wheeled herself over, by moving a toggle by the bottom of her chin; to the foot of the portrait I had admired so much at the take-in and hanging. When her group began to take pictures of her in front of her work, I grew curious whether or not she was the artist, as it didn’t seem that she could move any other part of her body than her head. Before she could leave I approached her. “Are you the artist of this piece?” Sara glowed. “Yes, that’s mine! It’s my niece.” The answer of how she painted it floated in between us, and as if she expected what I was wondering, she said, “I painted her with my mouth.”
After meeting her and my weekend stay with her, I had to share her story. A “child of the 70’s”, Sara Jane Parsons has been making things her whole life. In her youth, she made crafts of her time: Batik, tie-dye, and macramé. A car accident in her 20s broke her neck, smashed her spinal chord, and left her paralyzed from the collarbones down.
As Sara told me her story over a phone interview, I didn’t feel sadness from her voice. I didn’t feel anger or disgust. I felt truth, openness knowing everything happens exactly as it should, and endurance.
She said she had a positive attitude after the accident and that she wanted to “get going in life”, regardless of her circumstance. After some occupational therapy and rehab, Sara figured out how to utilize her mouth in ways not imagined before. She started to write and paint little things such as cards and found a peace knowing she could make things like when she was a child. Watercolor, fluid and lightweight, was a medium Sara could manipulate easily against Acrylic or Oil.
I asked Sara who helped her and where she was in her recovery period. After the accident, she moved back home to stay with her mother, a blessing of a caretaker. However, Sara’s powerful drive lulled her into an independent lifestyle and at 26 years old, she moved to California to attend Berkeley Law School, independent from her family. She hired her own help, graduated from Berkeley, and grew into a successful law career for people in crisis, managing about 80 clients in her young adult years.
Amidst her corporate career, Sara continued painting and stemmed into figure drawing. “Figure drawing opened up a whole new world for me,” Sara stated in our interview. “I took 2-3 classes a week and saw progress, was challenged, and felt adrenaline like I did when I was involved in sports in my youth. It was my new sport.”
A caretaker of Sara’s grew very fond of her figure drawings and paintings and Sara remembered this caretaker telling Sara to pay attention to her art. After many hours working with her clients and all the while creating more works of art, Sara needed to find balance. She decided to quit her job, move to Austin, TX, and get serious about her painting.
At dinner one night in Austin, a waiter approached Sara and asked if she knew Jared Duncan of the International Mouth and Foot Painter’s Society. “It was a Godsend. I wanted to join something, get somewhere, and do something with my blessing. This saved me,” Sara said about this encounter.
She applied to and was accepted to the International Mouth and Foot Painter’s Association (IMFPA) where she is still sponsored to create works of art. Through this society, Sara has been awarded scholarships, attended workshops, and been involved in many exhibitions with other artists that have disabilities.
Sara’s painting technique has become stronger over the years. At 52 years old, she has been creating art as a way to come to terms with the accident. “It’s interesting how society treats you before and after an accident [like mine]. I’ve realized that we are different from our bodies…I believe that the body is a vessel where the soul is contained. I am still me, no matter what state my body is in. Figure drawing put me back into my body and now, I appreciate any shape of the human form.”
Sara’s works of art speak for themselves. She focuses today on transparent watercolors and layering with rich colors. She aims to follow patterns of the Neo-Expressionism movement, embellishing mark making and the creative process. “I want to keep things alive, as art has kept me alive.”
Sara has served as an example of the strength residing within all of us to continue on, no matter what our circumstance is, what it may have been, or what it might become. As an artist, I admire her work and aspire to create in similar ways. As the figure has taught Sara about her soul, Sara’s soul has taught me about myself and the world around me.
I hope you all find inspiration in her story as artists and human beings. To see her artwork, visit her website at: http://www.sarajaneparsons.com. You can also email her at email@example.com for more information.
Sara, her niece, her caretaker, and Haley on S. Congress Ave in Austin
Sara, her husband Jimmy, and Haley at the IE show