Project Illumination // GUEST POST: Kathryn Beck

When we redefine ability, we unearth strength and dignity in unexpected places. When we redefine healing, we reveal beauty and grace in even the most broken things. Few people embody this thinking as vividly as our friend, artist, Kathryn Beck. This Summer, as part of the Joni and Friends Family Camp (see previous blog post), Kathryn was commissioned to paint my portrait for the Queen Esther-themed festivities.

Kathryn's portrait of me hanging in the background

Kathryn's unique niche is painting portraits of subjects with various special needs or disabilities ("Project Illumination") but painting them in a way that presents transcendent dignity and beauty...a redefinition, indeed. She shares with us her process of redefining ability and healing using her paintbrush. Kathryn, thank you for using your incredible talents to spread hope, not only to the subjects of your pieces but to all who encounter them and walk away seeing the world differently.

{You can see all Kathryn's work and find more information on commissioning your own piece at}

I probably couldn’t tell you the first time I painted or drew someone with special needs, since my sister Marsa has always been somewhat of a muse to me. Presumably she always will be. Even now I’m not sure if my artistic fascination with her springs from my appreciation of her gentle character and social complexity or her unorthodox beauty. Nonetheless, in 2010 I asked her to sit for me for a portrait. Most likely I was being lazy: I could tell my professor I wanted to paint my sister - because persons with special needs aren’t often portrayed - and it would be an easy ‘A’ that allowed me to paint one of my favorite subjects; however, I didn’t expect Marsa’s particular reaction to it. She was extremely reluctant and reticent throughout the process, and eventually began to cry when I asked to photograph her scars.

Painting of Marsa, 2010, inspiration project

Marsa's feet, first photo shoot for Illumination

Marsa has a glittering pink line extending from her hairline to her tailbone, wide purple bands at her hips, and lavender marks stretching down the sides of her feet. Each of these is as lovely to me as the blue of her eyes and the blonde in her hair, and are as much a part of her beauty as her smile. Her embarrassment of them baffled me. Who had told her that they weren’t appealing? Certainly we hadn’t, and not her friends. Society had, without any of us ever realizing it.

Discussing the painting with Ben, the boy portrayed

Project Illumination might simply be a visualization of morals passed on to me from my parents. That is, that one should be kind to everyone you meet, and that you should include everyone at the party. With the Illumination series, I could celebrate the achievements of friends and families with special needs and share them with a wide audience. Each painting would illustrate the beauty I see in my participants, while introducing a facet of life that many don’t understand happens in nearly one-fifth of America’s population. In 2012 I had a chance to create five works and work with five families to make that series a reality, and the process continues today.

Painting Katherine Wolf was something I considered even in high school - nearly six years ago - and it came as a joy and a blessing when I a friend approached me to paint Katherine for her session at Camp ASCCA. The photograph I chose to work with had the ethereal quality that I admire, and without any background information I went ahead and began sketching out the painting. Within the first few minutes, I was crying in front of the canvas for no particular reason except that it was so beautiful - which, I know, sounds strange from the artist herself, but my best work seems to spring from somewhere that’s quite out of my control. In fact, the project came at a rather tumultuous time in my own life, and I was unexpectedly calmed and centered by the work as I reviewed her video and thought about her life and accomplishments. Katherine’s own message of hope repeated in my head over and over until the painting seemed to finish itself. That creative process is very indicative of every painting process in my Illumination series, and reaffirmed for me something I had forgotten: That this is how my talents should be used.

Thank you, Wolf family, for allowing me access to your life and sharing it with the world! Your generosity continues to change lives for the better.