Jared Dunten is a loving husband and father, an extremely talented artist and copywriter, a fellow Aggie, and the quadriplegic survivor of an unfortunate diving accident.

 

Jared was paralyzed after diving into the Rio Grande in 2000 following a camping trip with a buddy from work. He began painting in 2002, and now continues to “paint himself out of the wheelchair,” focusing on not only his art, but his research advocacy for a cure for paralysis from spinal cord injury.

 

While Jared’s skill with a paintbrush is impressive by any standard, the fact that he expresses his vision while holding a brush in his mouth makes me feel both awe and a general sense of disappointment in my own skill level on a wide variety of subjects. His work spans a number of styles – some abstract, some incredibly detailed, landscapes, portraits, still life… I can’t imagine a subject he’s unable to capture beautifully.

 

He’s also an old college friend of my husband, which is how I came to meet him last weekend at his recent art show at Star Hill Ranch here in Austin. Matt and Jared spent some time catching up and talking about their days in the Corps at A&M, and I got to meet Jared’s wife Kimberly and their adorable twin sons, before our kids and I decided which pieces of his work we needed to add to our home.

 

We settled on a small print of The Chief and a canvas print of Randal, a bison in profile that we couldn’t get out of our heads. Jared shared that when he originally painted The Chief, the five-foot by five-foot canvas was so large that he continued to bump his feet into it as he leaned in to reach the canvas. He had to use extra-long brushes to avoid smudging his work, since he holds each one in his mouth. The detail of that work is incredible – I couldn’t paint as well if you gave me a decade to try.

 

As we wandered through the gallery, our son found Mea Culpa on a wall off to the side [as an original piece, it was protected from kids running around and adults with wine]. He retrieved me from the other side of the room, and quietly asked if it was about Jared’s accident. Four feet by two feet, it portrays a skeleton viewed from behind, and the detail and coloring appear purposefully unfinished, perhaps still under consideration.

 

While he was nervous to ask, my son asked Jared what the story behind the painting was. Jared explained that Mea Culpa means “my fault” in Latin. The work is his way of processing his accident, and his role in his resulting injury. It’s an acknowledgment of his responsibility, an expression of remorse, and an offering of forgiveness to himself for his injuries. He also shared that it’s a work progress – just as his healing process continues.

 

Despite the day-to-day challenges Jared and his family face, they’re as warm and kind as anyone you could meet. The twinkle in Jared’s eye and his broad smile are infectious, and his determination is obvious. He is confident that medical breakthroughs will one day allow him to walk again. I think he’ll be right.

 

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I meant to write this post differently. When I originally volunteered to write about the word backbone, I didn’t expect a both a figurative and literal connection – I just wanted to write about determination, scrappiness, staring down a challenge. Grit. But sometimes stories find their own way through.

 

I planned to write about my own challenges, and how being raised to have backbone in life helped me to overcome them. But suddenly, that seemed diary fodder, not helpful to anyone else, or interesting in any way. In considering his bravery, humor, confidence, courage, kindness, and joy I was struck by an entirely new imagining of the word – one personified by Jared himself. He’s both grit and grins.

 

Jared’s art show allowed Matt to reconnect with his old friend, and introduced me to someone I didn’t already know from those same A&M days. I knew Jared’s story before, and was as inspired by him then as I was meeting him in person.

 

Challenges incarnate variously. Some break us. It’s in the getting back up that we find our backbone. That getting back up may feel impossible or improbable. It can be an ongoing practice, day by day. It may take other hands to help lift us. And as we rise again, we may be more flexible, less rigid, but stronger none the less. It’s embracing that new possibility – that what comes after the tragedy may be a dawn different than what we expected – that proves our own backbones.

 

Because of the common Aggie heritage, and because inevitably, all thoughts of A&M lead me back to Robert Earl Keen, Jr. and my very favorite of his songs – The Front Porch Song – I’ve had this playing in my head while I’ve been writing this post. Now, you too can hum along.

 

This old porch is just a long time

Of waiting and forgetting

And remembering the coming back

And not crying about the leaving

And remembering the falling down

And the laughter of the curse of luck

From all of those sons-of-bitches

Who said we'd never get back up

 

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What are the challenges you've faced in life, in your career? What has tested your own backbone?

 

Image credit: Jared Dunten

Lyrics: Robert Earl Keen, Jr.