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Kristiferlee Owens

Jack Wellbaum gazes at the beautiful canvas before him, admiring the craftsmanship, “You’re doing good, Kris.”

Kristiferlee Owens, known to friends and family as Kris, blots blue acrylic paint onto the canvas as he attempts to recreate an impressionistic rendition of a crashing wave at sea. Like most artists, Kris has a certain style, a particular method, of painting that is entirely his own; however, unlike his creative counterparts, his technique exhibits his range as an artist and his drive to master his craft. Kris has cerebral palsy, and therefore, limited mobility of his hands, but he doesn’t let that stop him from pursuing his passion for painting. Instead, he’s embraced himself for who he is and uses an adapted painting method—a paintbrush fastened to a headband—to put paint to canvas.

This particular creation, along with several of those before it, allows Kris to try a popular painting technique known as stippling. Stippling differs from other painting techniques because it involves the artist dabbing his paintbrush, rather than sweeping, across the canvas surface.

In his previous creations, Kris had been using the more conventional—and his preferred painting method—brushstrokes in all of his artwork, but Jack wanted him to try something new and diversify his talents. According to jack, stippling is a fan favorite amongst art aficionados due to its use of bright, contrasting colors and the way these colors seem to ooze together on the canvas. Jack’s goal in helping Kris master this admired technique is to showcase the young man’s remarkable talent. The pair also hopes to use these next few months to expand Kris’ portfolio so he can submit to the Englewood Arts Festival on August 11 and 12 at Centennial Park.

Until then, Kris and Jack sit catty-corner in Jack’s cozy art studio honing their craft, reminiscing about their childhood shenanigans, and enjoying each other’s company. Surrounded by books, paintings, and sculptures, the pair casually discuss today’s topic-at-hand, color palettes, while also diving into the deeper meanings of life. 

Jack, a former art teacher, capitalizes on the opportunity to share some wisdom about the art of learning—or, as Jack refers to it, classroom time. “You always have to have classroom time as a painter, and history too, because there’s so much more to art than paint.” For today’s classroom time, Jack instructs Kris on establishing a color palette and choosing when to use a certain color.

As Jack uses a laser pointer to reference Kris’ work in progress, he emphasizes the significance of deciding for yourself which color to use next. “This is where you can break the rules, Kris. Others may have their rules, what they would pick, but you don’t have to follow their rules. You’re the painter, so you just follow your own rules here,” he explains. In the brief pause in conversation, Jack turns his head ever so slightly, and a twinkle sparkles in his eyes. With a smile growing across his face, he chuckles and says, “Artists are kind of weird like that.”

Kris takes a break from painting and laughs alongside his mentor. As they share this moment, it’s easy to see how strong their relationship has become since they first became friends over a year ago. When asked about their friendship, both men emphasize that they’re like family to one another now. Through their numerous sessions, the pair has developed a sincere appreciation for the other and the joy he provides.

Jack stresses he’s actually been more of the student here than Kris, but Kris humbly disagrees. “I wouldn’t have gotten this far without Jack.” Shaking his head, Jack points to Kris’ canvas and assures him, “You’re the creator, Kris. I didn’t do this, you did.”

Jack first learned about Kris and his passion for painting while out to eat with his wife, Karen, at a local restaurant. The two were enjoying their meal when Jack spotted Kris’ flyer hanging on the adjacent wall. Upon closer examination, Jack learned about Kris’ passion for art and how he wanted to take art classes or attend art school. Almost immediately after spotting the flyer, Jack’s inner teacher resurfaced, and he knew he wanted to help. The flyer identified Kris’ caseworker at Riverside, Rebekah Holly, as the one to be contacted, so Karen called Rebekah and class was soon in session.

Now, over a year and numerous paintings later, Jack and Kris chat like they’re family. The connection between them is obvious just in their interactions, but the mutual respect is especially prominent in Jack’s voice as he talks about his talented pupil. Kris has experienced his fair share of hurdles, but his attitude has never faltered. His constant smile is something Jack admires most. “He has the right attitude—to never give up, climb the mountain, and do what you want. Art is about solving problems, and he’s a good problem-solver.”

Having this constant support is one of the many aspects Kris values most about his teacher and mentor; their relationship embraces them both for their strengths, talents, and quirks—everything that makes them who they are, not what others perceive them to be. This type of friendship may not be atypical for some, but for many of those with developmental disabilities, a long list of misunderstandings and misperceptions often accompany their supposed “differences” and prevent them from developing relationships with others. Though people like Kris are just like everyone else, and would like to be treated as such, they unfortunately still encounter stereotypes and unfounded judgment.

That’s never been the case with Jack though, and now Kris has an entirely new atmosphere about him. Kris’ caregiver, Tess, chimes in on how much Jack and these classes have meant to Kris. “He has a whole new life now because of Jack. It’s so important to have cheerleaders like them to support him.”

Jack greatly appreciates these kind words but modestly adds, “That’s what we’re supposed to do.” The “we” Jack references to here are himself and his wife, Karen, also a former teacher. The couple has certainly been a tremendous asset to our community—with their compassionate nature, phenomenal teaching abilities, and overall drive to do what is good—but to Kris especially. Jack and his classes have given Kris the opportunity to be himself and pursue his love of painting.

Ever since he was 14-years-old, Kris has been painting and solving life’s problems one creation at a time. “Painting gets my mind off other things,” he says. Tess says these classes and Jack’s friendship have helped Kris blossom as a young man. “He’s trying new things just by being here. Everything he’s been through in the past year, meeting new people and learning to trust them, has been major for him,” she shares.

And he has no intentions of slowing down either. Not only does Kris still want to attend art school himself, he would also like to start instructing his own classes—whether they be at Riverside or out in our community. Ultimately, Kris would love to talk with young kids and adults about what it means to overcome obstacles, while also stressing the importance of never giving up in our pursuit of our dreams. In other words, Kris wants to be a Jack Wellbaum to Miami County’s youth and help them in the ways his mentor has done over the past year.

Jack’s honored to be a part of Kris’ transformation, repeatedly saying, “You inspire me, Kris. You make life worth living.” Due to this new friendship, Kris can now confidently say, “I have an outgoing spirit because I believe in myself and my ability to do what I love.”

And with this constant guidance and support their friendship provides, both Jack and Kris firmly believe that together, they’ll continue to grow as people, artists and most of all, friends.