Professional Santa Rosa artist Alana Tillman paints with her mouth

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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.”

When she noticed signs going up last year for the new design showroom, Inspired Spaces in downtown Santa Rosa, she wasted no time approaching owner Natasha Stocker, asking if she could hang her work. It turns out that Stocker was looking to showcase local artists and artisans, and found Tillman’s work a great fit with her own nontraditional design aesthetic. She enlisted the artist to create several pieces for her bright fuchsia-colored showroom.

“She doesn’t confine herself to boxes,” said Stocker. “She can do anything and will try anything. She’s a very free-spirited artist who always brings this vibrant, loose, organic quality to her work that I really appreciate. It isn’t too stuffy. The only problem is her pieces keep selling. People absolutely are responding. They are blown away by her work anyway, but when we tell them who she is and how she does it, it’s mind boggling.”

Stocker, who did the interiors for the new Bibi’s Burgers on Third Street in Santa Rosa, tapped Tillman to create five abstract pieces for the eatery to match its fresh energy and signature cyan blue color scheme.

Drawn to interior design as well, Tillman enjoys creating site specific art that fits the surrounding space with color, theme or texture.

“I think a lot of artists live more freely and chaotically, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I like completed spaces. I like things to fit. I like symmetry,” she says. Tillman crosses genres and even mediums, running the gamut from abstract to impressionist to surrealist. Most of her work is acrylic on canvas, but she also does mixed media, adding embellishments like glitter. One of her signature features is an edgy dripping technique with which she lets the paint bleed down the canvas.

“It’s an homage to street art,” she said. “You see graffiti, and sometimes the spray paint drips down the wall.”

Tillman, who signs her works Alana Ciena, her first and middle names, over her lifetime has developed very strong muscle control in her jaw and her tongue.

“I bite down on the brush hard enough to make sure I have full control over it and use my tongue to stabilize it,” she explained.

To do her work, she sits barefooted at an easel set up by a window in the living room of her Santa Rosa apartment. She prefers easy-clean synthetic brushes with Plexiglas handles rather than wooden handles with varnish that would wear off into her mouth. Long-handled brushes allow her to get a bit of distance from the canvas so she can see her work, but she still has to take frequent breaks so sit back and see the full painting. Her high pony tail wags as she applies brush to canvas to create a sunflower.

Her love of painting began in kindergarten, after undergoing multiple surgeries to fix her downward-facing feet. Doctors were doubtful she could ever walk. Throughout preschool she wore little plastic casts.

“I would draw in the hospital bed,” she said. “A lot of times I wasn’t able to play outside. That was my outlet, to draw and just be inside and escape that way from whatever I was dealing with.”

She took private art classes and by high school was immersed in art to the point of distraction. “Sometimes it would get me in trouble because I wouldn’t want to do my homework,” she said. “And there were times I would get too overwhelmed with my schoolwork, and I would sit in the back of the class and draw.”

Miller remembers her as tenacious. He encouraged her to pursue her art professionally.

“Gumption is the word that would describe the fire of art in Alana’s belly,” he said. “She was not one to be put down. She just tore it up.”

Subject to teasing and bullying in grade school and the low expectations of teachers who wrongly assumed she was also mentally handicapped, Tillman learned to use her mouth in self-defense, her sister said.

“She was underestimated a lot,” Ragueneau recalled. “We had to buddy up against bullying, but it was with our wit and our intelligence. Alana’s weapon has always been her mouth. Because she couldn’t do some things for herself, she had to use her mouth as a tool to get people to do things for her. She’s never been this docile, timid creature.”

Rather than attacking however, Tillman developed a way of speaking out aimed at educating people to respect, and perhaps even admire, human differences.

By high school, most of her peers were responding positively to the outgoing, well-dressed “girly-girl,” as her dad calls her, with a real gift for art.

She had one more surgery in high school to better position her arms. She can pick things up with her feet and wedge them in her hands, but she can’t grip. She also can balance things on her arms, or use them like hooks.

Tillman went on to earn her associate’s degree with an emphasis on art from Santa Rosa Junior College. After foundering for a few years, she set about pursuing with zeal her passion for art.

“I think I can overcome anything that tries to stop me in my tracks,” she said crediting her parents with allowing her to explore her capabilities. “They pushed me to figure out new ways of doing things.”

Tillman is helped in her professional quest by a grant from the Mouth and Foot Painting Artist’s Association, a 60-year-old international for-profit based in Europe that supports some 800 member artists who work without their hands. The group’s aim is to help them make a living with their art. The organization is very selective; artists must submit a portfolio that is judged by a panel of their peers, said Kate March, an executive assistant who works out of the group’s U.S. office in Atlanta.

Tillman receives a monthly stipend that pays for art materials and continuing education.

“Our mantra is, these aren’t just disabled people who like to dabble in painting. They are genuine artists who, for whatever reason, cannot use their hands,” March said.

Of the 70 members accepted into the organization in the United States, Tillman is “one of our most gifted and prolific,” she added.

“Her ability to catch mood and light is really astounding, but also her ability to move from bright pop art to more subtle abstracts. She has a real gift for moving among genres. And she is just such a lively person, such a bright spark.”

Tillman’s adaptive movements and positions do take their toll on her body. Her jaw can get tired after hours of painting “in the zone,” and she routinely seeks relief from an acupuncturist, chiropractor and masseuse.

But she does not bemoan her differences. Tillman reaches out to youth groups and regularly visits The Roseland Boys and Girls Club to talk with kids and show them how she paints, even letting them try painting with their mouths.

“Some of them have challenging home lives,” she said. “I just wanted to share the message that whatever happens, they can pull through it. It is good for them so see someone like myself overcoming adversities.”

Tillman calls her condition “a blessing.” And while she does not want the way she paints to define her work, she sees it as an opportunity to inspire others.

“Maybe I can witness to them and help them see through some of their hardships. They may have an accident or a devastating illness. I can be there to show them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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