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Mouth Over Matter: Man Doesn't Let Injury Stop Artistry

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HARRISONBURG — Bruce Dellinger became an artist out of necessity.

In 1981, at the age of 14, Dellinger fell 25 feet from a barn hay loft in a farming accident in Timberville. A spinal cord injury left him with no feeling below the chest and he became C5-6 Quadriplegic.

“This led to feelings of anger, denial and depression. I couldn’t figure out what to do with my time,” he said. “The more I concentrated on my disability, the harder it got. I got very suicidal and didn’t really want to live anymore.”

To occupy his time, Dellinger taught himself how to draw using his mouth to hold a pencil. His illustrations have won awards and have shown all over the world, including in Australia, Japan, Germany and Argentina.

Dellinger, now 51 years old, will have artwork on display at Appalachian Physical Therapy’s Harrisonburg office, located at 2035 E. Market St., Suite 45, until May 22.

“Bruce has overcome significant obstacles and I think it’s a great show of the revival of the human spirit,” said Bill Whiteford, owner of Appalachian Physical Therapy.

Dellinger remembers feeling so frustrated one day, he started beating a typewriter with his numb hand. That’s when his aunt, who was a painter, encouraged him to start making art.

“It got my mind off things,” he said.

He initially painted with oils and experimented with pastels and charcoal, but he settled on the No. 2 graphite pencil for its ease of use.

With a pencil in his mouth, Dellinger leans over a table so the pencil touches the paper. He draws very slowly to avoid mistakes. It can sometimes take up to 180 hours to complete his detailed drawings.

“It really takes a lot of work to put some of these things together,” Dellinger said. “You have to have good spatial orientation. Normally, how I start a piece out is, I’ll draw a diagram of exactly what I want and then have someone cut it out and I’ll do an outline around it.”

Mouth drawing does have some limitations. For example, Dellinger said he can’t do large drawings.

“The hardest part about drawing with your mouth is that sometimes you can’t reach a certain point so you have to flip the composition upside down ... or you have to turn it sideways,” he said.

His favorite subjects are animals, but he’s also drawn human figures, landscapes and patriotic pieces for veterans. He’s also designed tattoos for friends and family.

“I get my ideas from all over the place,” Dellinger said. “Some are actual places in the Shenandoah Valley, some of them are from completely out of my head.”

Whiteford was blown away by the detail and quality of Dellinger’s artwork. His drawings were a perfect match to display in a physical therapy office.

“I think his work is great, especially for someone who does it with their teeth,” he said. “I think it’s just a really neat way of encouraging people who have physical disabilities to realize that the sky’s the limit. You can do anything you want to do.”

Dellinger also hopes his work will inspire others with disabilities.

“I think it will give folks encouragement if they’re struggling with their own disability,” Dellinger said. “It may brighten their day that somebody with a disability can really make a difference.”

The drawings are hung on the walls in the patient rooms in the physical therapy office, as well as in the front lobby area.

Appalachian Physical Therapy will be hosting an open house artist meet and greet with Dellinger on Tuesday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Dellinger will be there to talk about his drawings and answer questions.

Contact Shelby Mertens at

574-6274, @DNR_smertens or smertens@dnronline.com

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