For mouth painter Jared Dunten, the trick is to just keep going
“If you'd asked me 20 years ago, 'Do you want to paint flowers?' I would have probably laughed, like, ‘Hell no!’” Jared Dunten said at his studio in Spicewood last fall. “But the more I've studied them, they're amazing.”
In front of him was an 8-foot canvass of a peach tree in bloom that he was doing on commission. He had already painted 400 flowers on the tree and had a lot more to go.
Dunten’s studio is in the back of his house in a wooded area off Highway 71. It’s bathed in light from windows that sit over concrete walls. There are paintings everywhere — on shelves, propped up in corners.
They depict people, buildings, vehicles. They are colorful, often deeply textured, and some, like the peach tree, are really big.
One thing you would not know about them by just looking is that Dunten, 49, painted them all with his mouth.
An accident more than 20 years ago left him paralyzed from the neck down. The accident got him to start painting professionally — though his story starts well before then.
Dunten grew up in the Hill Country around Lake Travis. He liked drawing and writing, but was also really outdoorsy. He swam and played football and tennis.
He went to high school in Austin, then college at Texas A&M, where he majored in English. He says he graduated with a plan to return to Austin and become an “Alex P. Keaton” success, referring to Michael J. Fox's character on "Family Ties."
“Growing up in the '80s, I was like, I think I want a job with a corner office and a briefcase,” he says.
He got work as a writer at the Austin advertising agency GSD&M.
“You're starting out, you're trying to get there before anybody else, stay later than anybody else,” he says. “You do this for like two or three years, right? You know, you're killing yourself.”
So, Dunten and a friend planned to take his “first real vacation.” They went camping in Big Bend. After a few days in the backcountry, they visited the Rio Grande, and that’s where the accident happened: He dove in, hit something in the water and broke his neck.
The next thing he knew, he was waking up in an ICU in Lubbock, unable to move and surrounded by friends and family.
“It was like the worst episode of 'This Is Your Life,'” he says. “Why are all these people here? Why are these people here from elementary school to middle and high school, professional work life? Why are they all here?”
Dunten doesn’t remember a lot from this time. He was there for months, medicated, battling pneumonia on top of everything else. He remembers that listening to music helped pass the time. Eventually, he went to a rehab center in Houston.
“It just kept getting more serious the more I found out about it,” he says. “People are telling you little bits and pieces, but everyone's trying to not lay too much on you at once.”
As he left the rehab facility for home, he remembers a doctor telling him: "You don't eat an elephant all at once.”
No manuals for this
When he got back home with his parents, Dunten started writing for the agency again. But he says he was not coping well.
He refused to use a powered wheelchair.
"There was a refusal to accept where I was at that moment," he says.
His parents thought he needed some kind of outlet. His mother had an old file cabinet sitting around, so one day she told him he was going to paint it for her.
He smiles: “When mother makes a request, you do it."
They wrapped some cloth around a brush handle so he could bite down on it and he started painting. The feeling he got when it was over was thrilling.
“I can do something like in the sense of physically do something!” he says. “That's kind of how it started was just this ugly file cabinet, and now it's less ugly.”
He kept painting and life kept happening.
He worked for the agency and studied under other painters. Some friends introduced him to Kimberly Katzberg around 2003. They started off as friends but their relationship grew.
"People would ask, 'Why are you going out to Spicewood all the time?'” she says. “Well, I really, really like hanging out with Jared.”
Dunten remembers thinking: “Oh shit, I think we're falling in love. What do we do with this? There's no manuals for this. So we just kind of pieced together a little bit at a time.”
They married in 2006 and had twin boys in 2011. Dunten's reputation as a painter grew. More and more commissions came in for work. And Katzberg — now Kimberly Dunten — was there to help.
He calls her his “quality assurance,” asking her opinions on his work.
“I can’t fake it,” she laughs. “I either like something and he knows it. Or I don’t say anything and he knows it.”
The artist and the art
So, how does someone paint with their mouth?
The day I met Dunten, he was working on the flowering peach tree. For paintings this size, the canvas is fastened to a mechanical swivel to make it easier for him to get to different parts of it.
He also uses longer brushes for these jobs. They provide more reach. But manipulating them is hard on his teeth, jaw and neck.
“I do love the physicality of it,” he says. “Sometimes I like jumping in there and like slugging it out with the canvas.”
Every brush stroke counts. Mistakes are harder to correct. So he’s always looking for new techniques and materials.
For brush handles, he uses aluminum arrow shafts made for archery. They’re sturdy but lightweight. On the day I was there, Kimberly helped switch out brushes while he painted the peach tree. Other times he has an assistant.
“A good painting session would be the whole day where I've got someone that's able to switch brushes out pretty quickly and I can take breaks periodically,” he says.
When it’s over, he says he feels “beat up.” But he still gets the thrill he felt when he painted that first file cabinet.
“I think about the tree, for instance. It didn't exist, like I brought that into being,” he says. “There's nothing else like that.”
And, when one piece is finished, he moves quickly to the next, even if that just means “drawing circles.”
He says the approach almost reminds him of those early days in rehabilitation.
“Just start there and then something comes,” he says, “I kind of go back to the paralysis. You just don't know what's going to happen. Just keep going.”
Dunten is not super conceptual about his paintings. He doesn’t always intend for them to mean something in particular. But once you know his story and his method it certainly changes the way you look at them.
He says he’s happy if the story behind his work helps people in their own lives, though he’s wary of becoming — as he puts it — “a poster child for overcoming things.”
On one hand, he wants to walk again. That hope is part of what drives him. On the other hand, there are many ways in which he feels really lucky.
“The fact that I'm happily married, have kids. We love and fight and struggle, like [everyone else]. But it's a good life,” he says. “That's pretty blessed.”