Quadriplegic artist paints from the heart with his mouth

Landry Allred

After a diving accident in 2000, Jared Dunten had to learn how to paint with a new tool — his mouth.

When Dunten began working full-time at an advertising agency in Austin, he and his friend went on a camping trip to Big Bend National Park. After arriving at the Rio Grande, Dunten dove into the river, hit a sandbar and broke his neck. In that instant, Dunten’s life completely changed, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. 

Today, he works without his hands, using his mouth to hold paint brushes to create masterpieces. His work has been displayed in multiple locations, including Bass Concert Hall.

“The art, for me, is both therapeutic and maddening,” Dunten said. “I’m still learning and practicing. Every piece is preparing for the next one because you learn something every time.”

Dunten hadn’t always painted. After his accident and several months in a Houston rehabilitation hospital, his mother encouraged him to begin painting in 2002.

“I started doing a little bit at a time, and then I got to where I was like, ‘Okay, this is more fun, and I’m enjoying it more,’” Dunten said.

Dunten said painting without able-hands is a challenge because using his mouth becomes tiring and using big motions would be much easier.

“I have such a romantic notion of being able to use your arm,” Dunten said. “It would be so nice to do because I’m just grinding away a little section with my head.”

Dunten’s condition also poses obstacles in everyday life. Living in Spicewood, Texas with his wife and two kids, Dunten sticks to schedules and routines to adapt to each situation. 

His wife Kimberly Dunten said everything requires extra planning that wouldn’t normally be required for an able-bodied person, including their trip to Chicago in a couple months.

“All those things for able-bodied people might just be, ‘We bought tickets. We’ve got a hotel room. We’re going,’” Kimberly said. “(For us), there’s a lot of logistics and planning and all those things take time and energy.”

Despite Jared’s disability, the fact that he’s able to create beautiful things is what draws many people to his story, including Mitchell Chavez, a Texas State University student who traveled 50 miles to Spicewood to see Jared’s unique artworks.

“Often people get put in that kind of situation where they have something traumatic happen to them, and they just spend the rest of their life sulking about it,” Chavez said. “He’s taken it and has done something amazing with it.”

With this sense of perseverance, Jared said he is incredibly grateful for the life he’s had. It wasn’t until two years after his accident that he first met his wife, later creating a family.

“I wouldn’t change it because I wouldn’t want to not have my wife, children, the experiences I’ve had or the people I’ve met,” Jared said. “I wouldn’t want to sacrifice and not have those.”

Jared said he continues to wait patiently for the day he can walk again and relies on the idea that life is unpredictable.

“My whole life changed in the blink of an eye, the snap of a finger,” Jared said. “Why couldn’t it change back just as quickly?”