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Arts & Entertainment
Posted
Updated January 30
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Disabled artist sells prints of Joshua Chamberlain’s home to help raise money to restore it

Jessica Jewett, an Atlanta-based artist with family ties to Maine, was born with a condition affecting her joints and muscles and uses her mouth to create her art.

Artist Jessica Jewett works on a sketch of the Joshua Chamberlain House in Brunswick. Jewett, born with a condition affecting her joints and muscles, uses her mouth for tasks most people use their hands for, art included. Photo courtesy of Jessica Jewett

BRUNSWICK — It took Atlanta-based artist Jessica Jewett nearly two weeks to complete her pencil sketch of Brunswick’s Chamberlain House, working roughly five hours per day, five days per week, her pencil gripped between her teeth, getting the linework and the shading just right.

For Jewett, 37, art is a full-time job – but her latest project, a sketch of Civil War Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s historic home, means a little more.

Jewett was born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, a condition in newborns that results in decreased flexibility to the joints, primarily in the shoulders, elbows, hands, hips, knees and feet, according to the American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine. Because of this, Jewett is a quadriplegic and lacks fine motor skills.

Her disability, chronic pain and multiple surgeries made her feel a connection with Chamberlain.

“Chamberlain himself has always been a huge hero of mine,” Jewett said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Jessica Jewett’s prints of the Chamberlain House are available online. Proceeds will go to fund restorations by the Pejepscot History Center. Photo Courtesy of Jessica Jewett

Chamberlain won notoriety at the Battle of Gettysburg where his regiment occupied the extreme left of the Union lines at Little Round Top. Chamberlain’s men withstood repeated assaults and finally drove the Confederates back with a downhill bayonet charge.

He was shot through the pelvis, suffering injuries that nearly killed him at the Second Battle of Petersburg in June 1864.

“It’s really a miracle, it’s incredible he walked out of there,” said Larissa Vigue Picard, director of the Pejepscot History Center. “He lived with severe pain, a medical condition that had to be managed every single day for 50 years or more. … He never really slowed down. To me, that’s the more fascinating part of the man, how he overcame significant challenges. He was very determined and not going to let obstacles get in his way.”

“Then to realize that he became governor and president of Bowdoin College while this was going on was a reminder that I can work through my pain and my surgeries. I can do great things too,” Jewett said.

Jewett, a descendant of Sarah Orne Jewett, a late 19th century Maine writer, made the trip from Georgia to Maine in 2008 and 2009, visiting Gettysburg, the Sarah Orne Jewett Museum and Visitor Center in South Berwick, the Chamberlain House and a few other stops along the way. She felt a connection to the house, and now, years later, “the house is starting to show signs of distress (and) it’s starting to look like we really need to step up as people and restore this,” she said.

The Chamberlain House was built between 1824 and 1829. The house was moved from Potter Street to Maine Street and was rented by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for a time before Chamberlain began renting the house 1856. Today, it houses a museum with displays including the bullet that almost killed Chamberlain and his original Medal of Honor.

Jewett never made a conscious decision to start using her teeth for tasks she might normally use her hands for; it was just something she did by instinct.

“Anything you do with your hands, I have found a way to do with my mouth,” she said. Art is no exception.

She started with watercolors but now works mostly in pencil and occasionally oil paints, doing primarily portraits and commissions, though she has a soft spot for architecture work.

“I use art as a way to communicate,” Jewett said. “I feel like I put more of my soul into art.”

What started as a small shop on Etsy, a website where artists and makers can sell handmade or vintage items and craft supplies, quickly took off, and at any given time Jewett has 30 to 40 people waiting for commissioned pieces.

Reactions to her art and her methods are generally positive, but there are always people who question whether she is actually disabled or if she is actually the one making the art.

“There is this idea that people with disabilities don’t have goals, don’t have talent, don’t have ideas and they just sort of survive,” she said “(Some people) have trouble wrapping their head around a disabled person having a skill set they don’t have. … But I do work really really hard. If you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll do it three or four times over and I’ll take pictures.”

Her drawing of the Chamberlain House has been gaining traction online, and so far she has raised roughly $1,200 for the museum, minus the cost of shipping. The original sold for $385 within an hour of posting, and she continues to sell prints ranging from $12 to $24.

Jewett hopes to keep the project going.

“When you release a piece there’s a lot of interest, and then it tapers off, which is totally normal,” she said, “But I want to be able to continue making donations over the course of the year,” and she sees more art as the best way to do that.

Upcoming ideas include portraits of Chamberlain and his wife, Fanny.

“(Fanny) gets reduced to a footnote in (her husband’s) history,” she said, but “she was a unique person in her time.” Fanny Chamberlain was a teacher and an artist, and in her life before she was married, she “resembled a modern woman,” Jewett said.

Picard said Jewett’s offer to help fundraise was completely out of the blue. “Clearly she has some challenges she’s dealt with in her life, but she’s very gifted and talented, and I’m grateful (she) chose to share those gifts with us.”

The Pejepscot History Center has an annual operating budget of about $200,000, so “any amount for a small nonprofit is a huge gift,” Picard said.

The money will go directly to restoring the Chamberlain House. The center is in the middle of a two-phase exterior work project on the building, as well as an interior lobby expansion.

There are also efforts to restore the house’s two-story porch, which is beginning to show some wear, and some of the columns and flooring need to be replaced.

The porch is “a fairly unusual feature in Brunswick,” Picard said. When Chamberlain became president of Bowdoin College in 1871, he decided he needed a fancier house, she said, so he had his home (porch included) raised 11 feet and added a new ground floor and another porch.

This is one of the features that so endeared the house to Jewett.

“Buildings like this one belong to all of us,” she wrote in a blog post about saving the house. “Individually, none of us can afford the $20,000 the PHC needs to raise to save Chamberlain’s porches from decaying and deteriorating. I know I can’t. But what I can do is use my skills as an artist to draw attention to the house and make it worth your effort to help rescue the house. … To me, the Chamberlain house like all other historical houses are like living things with souls and sets of memories all their own.”

Picard said they are looking into selling Jewett’s prints in the museum gift shop.

“As a small organization, we’re always looking for support,” Picard said. “We’re often the ones seeking it, so when it gets dropped in your lap … Boy, what a treasure.”


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