Painting His Way to Independence : Paralyzed Man Finds New Talent to Replace Old

Times Staff Writer

Jim Ritter doesn’t know that much about art.

Indeed, he readily admits that, before an accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, he had no interest in sketching or painting. Now, he marvels that he has developed the talent to take a brush in his mouth and create images the way he does.

Each day in his Mission Village home, where he lives with his wife, Ellen, Ritter eases his electric wheelchair up to a small blue-green easel where, with a brush held in his mouth, he deftly paints picturesque landscapes and cartoons to be used for his Christmas card business.

“The Lord just gave me a talent I didn’t know I had,” said the 28-year-old entrepreneur who, from his chair with the “I Ellen” bumper sticker on it, is trying to turn an unlikely talent into his version of the American Dream.


“I’d like to make enough (from the Christmas cards) so Ellen doesn’t have to work anymore, and I’d like to travel around the States talking to people. . . . I like to tell people that there are no limits,” Ritter said.

Twelve years ago, there seemed to be nothing but limits for Ritter after his neck was broken in three places in a logging accident near his hometown of Montesano, Wash.

Ritter had been captain of his junior high football and wrestling teams and on his high school football team, and everything seemed to come easy for him.

“Jim was an all-star athlete before the accident. . . . He seemed to get all the talent,” said Ritter’s brother, Dave, who is minister of music at the First Assembly of God Church in San Diego. Jim moved in with his brother in 1981 after their mother’s death.

“He was a real outgoing kid, but he became very introverted after the accident . . . He really lost his teen years,” Dave said.

Doctors gave the then-16-year-old about five days to live, a diagnosis that caused Ritter’s father to have a heart attack.

Despite the dour diagnosis, Ritter’s family instructed doctors to go ahead with surgery on his broken neck and, as Jim tells it, “I knew I was going to make it.”

It was during his period of recuperation in a Seattle rehabilitation center that a volunteer proposed the idea of drawing pictures.

Ritter was skeptical of the suggestion.

“I said I can’t do that; I’m paralyzed. But (the volunteer) showed me a picture that a paralyzed little girl had done and I figured if a girl could do it so could I,” he said, laughing.

Starting slowly at first, Ritter was amazed at how easy painting with his mouth came to him.

The volunteer “held my hand at first, or I should say she held my brush. . . . I drew a tree with a deer next to it and it looked like a real deer.”

Ritter continued to paint occasionally until he moved in with Dave.

He began toying with the idea of turning his drawings into a business, because he wanted to be more independent.

For about a year he kept his business, called Jimmy’s Ink, in Dave’s name because if it was discovered he was earning a profit he might have lost his Social Security and Medicaid benefits.

But about six months ago he said eased restrictions allowed him to place Jimmy’s Ink in his own name as long as he kept a complete count of his records.

“As long as the money goes back into the business everything is OK . . . The grand plan is to have a distributor market the cards,” Ritter said.

For the time being, his cards are being distributed by friends to local stores, Ritter said.

He said he sold $4,000 worth of cards last year and hopes to pay off a $6,000 printing bill within the next few weeks.

“Things could be better, but I guess every businessman says that,” Ritter said.

Jim and Ellen were married two years ago after meeting at the First Assembly Church, and now are trying to get the business going together while living on Ellen’s salary as a receptionist at a mortgage company.

“She’s my arms and legs,” Ritter said.

While running his business takes much of his time, Ritter also busies himself as a public speaker at local schools, churches and hospitals.

“I believe my gift is encouragement,” Ritter said. “I talk to people and use myself as an example that you can anything you want to do.

“A lot of people think they can’t do some things. I try to tell them that there are no limits.”