Port Barrington artist Jennifer Hunter pulled to a stop in her red and white pick-up truck, looking into the side-view mirror to see what was happening. The terrible screech of car breaks and clash of metal she’d just heard seemed far away, so when the impact came, crunching her truck in the middle of a six-car pileup, and slamming her face into the steering wheel, she was shocked and shaken.
“I felt a sharp pain go from my neck down through my arm,” says Hunter. “It hurt for a while, but I was determined to be okay, determined that nothing was going to be wrong. Because I was so afraid of doctors, I walked away from the accident and went on with life.”
For 20 years, Hunter moved forward. Love for art, nature, and horses already defined her. She’d been drawing since before she could talk, riding horses bareback with her friends in Northbrook pastures as a child. She studied art from 6th grade on, with a segue in the middle for a college degree in biology, built on her fascination for understanding the human body.
But creative arts took precedence, and Hunter went on to study at the American Academy of Art—learning from mentor Richard Schmid, and graduating with a passion for watercolor and oil painting. She moved to California to find and hone her personal style, and traveled the American West painting watercolors and oils of the natural landscapes, horses, and Native Americans she loved.
Hunter was selected to be Artist in Residence at Rocky Mountain National Park (her painting of the park’s 1915 dedication now in their permanent collection) and won awards from Women Artists of the West, Oil Painters of America, Colorado Plein Air Painters, American Plains Artists, and more. She earned signature status in the Academic Artists Association and Western Colorado Watercolor Society. And, she had solo exhibitions at the Grand Canyon National Park and Museum of Western Art.
But the accident came back to haunt her, slowly adding pain and removing mobility, even as her skills as a painter improved. First, a bulging disc between her fifth and sixth vertebrae was identified. Then came carpal tunnel and thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), a condition that impedes movement of the neck and ribcage, compressing nerves and blood vessels. And finally? The disc in her neck ruptured.
“It was agonizing,” she recalls. “When you have a spinal injury, you lose muscle and strength. I lost about half of the muscle in my shoulders and arms. It was painful to even drive a car. Painting became impossible.”
But this story has a happy ending. Determined to overcome her fears of doctors and surgery, Hunter spent two years tracking down a specialist who could give her her life back. She found him in Jeremy Fogelson, a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic.
“The Mayo Clinic had done research into surgically correcting spinal injuries like mine. They were pretty much my last hope, since I had been turned down by a sequence of other doctors who just told me to go on with physical therapy, which hadn’t worked,” Hunter recalls.
Refusing to accept that fate, Hunter found medical literature with case studies of patients whose symptoms were similar to hers; one online paper was co-authored by Fogelson.
“I knew I had found a surgeon who would understand what all the others had missed,” she says. “I sent that research to Dr. Fogelson, along with my MRI and X-ray imaging and a letter with my request for an appointment. So, I arrived at that first meeting carrying a painting of horses running in a river under my arm, convinced I would have to “sell” the doctor on my plight.”
Fogelson didn’t need convincing. He knew surgery would help Hunter.
“And not only that, he was a great guy, and he liked my painting,” Hunter recalls, laughing. “He even said he wouldn’t mind having one like that hanging on his wall at home.”
Fogelson would get his wish. To overcome her fear and jitters during the pre and post-op meetings, Hunter took to sketching the doctor.
“Doing the drawings calmed me,” she says. “My own little art therapy sessions, and the more I sketched, the more I wanted to do a painting from the work.”
After the successful surgery, and the arduous, yearlong recovery process, Hunter set to work.
“It took me about a month to do the painting,” she says. “I’d paint as long as I could, sometimes three hours, sometimes six, lying on the floor between stints if I got tired.”
The finished portrait of Fogelson, smiling in his surgical scrubs with the grand, gilt entrance of the Mayo Clinic in the background, now hangs in his home.
“He was like a kid at Christmas when I gave it to him,” says Hunter. “That made me so happy.”
Continuing on with her work, Hunter still paints the Western scenes she is acclaimed for, horses and rodeos, work hands, and cattlemen; Native Americans and mountainous vistas. But her eyes are always open to painting whatever is close to her heart. Currently? She just finished a painting of the Bluenose II, a Canadian tall ship she once sailed on that is a replica of a famous, two-masted fishing schooner. The painting was part of her show at Barrington’s Art in the Barn last month.
“The best paintings are those that are closest to your heart, the things you care about,” Hunter sums. “I’ve always loved horses, and nature, and the people I’ve met and become friends with in my journeys. Art is very calming—it’s essential to our existence. It’s my hope that with my art, I can continue to bring beauty, joy, and a connection to people’s lives.”
Hunter’s work can be viewed at jenniferhunter.co.