Professional Santa Rosa artist Alana Tillman paints with her mouth
When Alana Tillman was only a toddler, she would perch by her father's drafting table; as he sketched, she colored.
“I always told her, ‘You're going to be a famous artist someday,'” retired architect Allen Tillman remembers.
By the time she was in preschool and kindergarten, little Alana was coloring inside the lines while other kids were scribbling. Her drawings were not stick figures but figurals with fine details - ribbons in their hair, bows on their dresses, jewelry and shoes.
Her developing skill as an artist was all the more remarkable considering that Alana did it all without use of her arms and hands. Born with a congenital condition called arthrogryposis, in which the joints are permanently contracted and without muscle development, Tillman at 3 taught herself how to manipulate her crayons with her lips, tongue and teeth. By 5, she was teaching herself how to paint with her mouth.
Now, some 30 years later, her father's prediction is coming true. Tillman is gaining notice as an emerging artist, and not just for the novelty of how she creates her canvases. Her vibrantly colored acrylic paintings feature soft-edged landscapes inspired by rural scenes in Sonoma County, farm animal portraits, bold abstracts and still lifes of everyday objects - an old Polaroid camera, a first generation Nintendo, in the fashion of Andy Warhol and Wayne Thibaud. And they are being discovered by collectors and designers.
After a buyer for Williams-Sonoma spotted her work at the National Heirloom Festival in Santa Rosa, Tillman inked a deal that will feature her renderings of ripe fruits and vegetables and playful kitchen utensils in the high-end retailer's 2017 catalog. Last month, nearly 100 people showed up for an artist's reception at the new agro-hip Fulton Crossing Gallery on River Road, where Tillman is a featured artist through March.
An unfailing optimist, she learned early in life there's most likely a way around any obstacle if you look for it. So she determinedly tools around in her Cadillac crossover vehicle adapted with a cuff on the steering wheel so she can control it with her foot, visiting art galleries to promote her work. A court settlement over a medical mistake when she was a baby helped finance her first car at 18, which she has leveraged into upgrades over the years.
“I'm not afraid of the word no,” she says. “So many people are held back by what the word ‘no' might mean. I just tend to ignore that.”
It's an attitude developed over years of having to figure out workarounds for the tasks most people with two working arms and hands take for granted.
While her arms are permanently set in 45 degree angles, her feet are nimble with finely developed motor skills. She uses them to text and work her phone, punching numbers with her No. 2 toe with the adeptness of a dialing finger. An excellent cook, Tillman sits on the countertop to stir with her mouth and has sought out lightweight pots and pans with rubber handles that she can grip with her teeth.
“I call her Twinkle Toes,” Allen Tillman said of his agile daughter, who says she talks with her feet like others express themselves with their hands.
There's little she can't do. As a child, she rode a bike her parents adapted by wrapping a padded towel around the handlebars so she could lean forward as she pedaled.
“It's interesting the things she can do better than many of us can do with our hands,” said her fraternal twin Alena Ragueneau, who was not born with the same condition as her much smaller sister. “She has an excellent driving record. And she is an amazing make-up artist. She really prides herself. She has eyebrows that are well positioned, and it blows me away.”
Art teacher Dennis Miller, her mentor at Montgomery High School, where she was in the International Baccalaureate honors art classes, said even as a teenager Tillman was “a tough cookie” who could hold her own.
“She carries herself in a way that says, ‘I'm in charge of my world,'” he said. Miller recalls running into the Tillman family on a river outing and watching in fear as Alana dove into the water. He had to suppress the instinct to rescue her.
“I just watched in amazement as this kid swam in the river and crawled around the rocks like every other kid. That's when I felt like I really got to know her fill spirit.”
Asked if it was difficult at first learning to do things differently, she replies, “Not at all. It came naturally. There was never that struggle there.”
Now 33, Tillman is driven not only to be an artist but, as she says, “to live off my art, to be financially stable and to do it with a positive message.”