HALES CORNERS — Jeff LaDow from Hales Corners jumped into five-and-a-half feet of water on the first day of summer at age 18 and broke his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic. But LaDow doesn’t let that fateful day define his life. He’s continuing to live and pursue his passions, one of which is painting. LaDow is currently one of the top mouth painters in the country, and he’s spent decades with his determined eyes fixed on a canvas, a foot from his face, painting for four to six hours a day – with a brush in his mouth, and helpless hands at his sides.
LaDow’s artwork is on display in the art gallery at Milwaukee’s Sisters of Saint Francis. There, LaDow demonstrates for awestruck spectators how his mouth guides every extraordinary brush stroke as he paints beautiful buildings and landscapes. Breathing and painting at the same time is a challenge LaDow conquers daily, with the help of his full-time, live-in assistant, Julie McKenzie, who sets up LaDow’s oil paints for him.
LaDow also doesn’t let the fact that he’s a quadriplegic stop him from jumping out of planes. He says he tries to go skydiving at least once a year, and the first time he went, he shattered both of his femurs! “(The doctor) just said ‘I hope you learned your lesson,’ and I said ‘I just better do it right next time!’” LaDow said.
Since that first try at skydiving, LaDow and his skydiving instructor have found a way to safely harness LaDow’s legs for a better landing.
LaDow is part of an international organization called Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, that helps him and other mouth painters get started. Their efforts are mostly funded by post cards and calendars sold around the holidays.