My introduction to pop artist Charlotte VanRoss was, as Bob Ross would say, a “happy accident”—had it not been for Steven Amoxès, one of my previous Artist Spotlight guests, we might never have met. Creative, resourceful, and determined, Charlotte embraces and exemplifies the type of go-getting attitude that often sparks success. Her desire to pursue her dreams despite physical obstacles, coupled with her talent for opportunity-making, has led to great achievement in her field. Bonus: she’s funny, warm, and a darn good storyteller.
Interview conducted by R. N. Jayne
Welcome, Charlotte. I’m honored to speak with someone of your artistic caliber; it’s also my first time interviewing a disabled artist. Can you tell me a bit about your disability?
Hello, I’m a Choctaw Native American from the DFW—Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. I was born without hands.
Did you parents know before you were born that you wouldn’t have hands, or was your congenital anomaly unexpected?
My parents (Thelma and Charles) had no idea—it was a total surprise. My mother said my father took it very hard.
Do you remember the first time you noticed other people had hands, but you didn’t?
When I was a little girl, kids would say, “Oh my goodness! Look at that girl with no hands!” and I would be looking for her because I didn’t consider myself as not having hands. Then the kids would laugh and poke fun at me and say, “You don’t have any hands, silly! We’re talkin’ about you!” I would get so angry and say, “I do have hands!” I never saw myself any different from them, but I could not convince these mean little kids that I had hands … so I told them, “I ate my hands up—I’ll eat your hands up too if you keep being mean to me.”
Wow! That’s one way to silence their taunts.
I was a strange kid, but I would not tolerate bullying. My parents raised me as a normal child; they didn’t raise me as a special child. I thought I was normal, and I’ve always felt this way.
When did you start making art, and what was your first medium?
My aunt Mary Jones has always said that she knew there was something different about me, and she was right: she knew when I was three years old that I was a little artist. I was very observant, even at that age. My family was amazed because I was using my two arms together and doodling away. I loved hearing their praise and seeing the excitement in their eyes every time I drew something. The first medium was chalk pastels. They were easy to blend.
Tell me about some notable artworks from your formative years.
In Grade 1, I attended my first art class. We had a project: making a Thanksgiving turkey with your hand. You drew around your hand with a pencil, cut it out, and created a turkey. Since I didn’t have hands, I drew the turkey myself. Boy, it got a lot of attention! I was in the paper at 7 years old.
The teachers knew that I was an extraordinary little girl, and my artistic career set off. My parents collected newspaper articles of me throughout elementary and middle school. At school, children used to ask me to help them with their art projects. I guess you can say I was the youngest little teacher.
When people ask, “How do you paint without hands?” what do you tell them?
I put my arms together and I paint with both arms. I paint with my feet sometimes, but I use my arms all the time. I use my feet less often these days: it’s more difficult since I’ve grown older since I’m not as flexible as I used to be.
How do your children react to your art?
Of my three children, my youngest son was the only one who was inspired by my work. He used to go to the school and tell all his teachers that I was an artist, and they would call me to buy paintings.
My life took another turn when I re-entered the art world after raising my family. I volunteered for the community by teaching art classes in an orphanage, public schools, and shelters for battered women.
What types of art classes did you teach?
We focused on watercolors and acrylics; I taught them how to paint landscapes and portraits.
One day, I landed in the papers again. This time I was nominated for Tarrant County’s Woman of the Year. I didn’t stop there—I wanted to know if my art was good enough to get into galleries, so I contacted auctioneers. Without knowing who I was, they said the work was good, but they also critiqued my art and told me I needed a little more technique. They got me in contact with a gentleman by the name of Dale Bedford. After I was in his class for a couple of months, he put me in some competitions. I entered so many competitions, I ended up enhancing my skills. I was so inspired, and I wanted to know how far my talent would take me. I always won either First Place, Best of Show and Third Place.
You must have many students who look up to you. Who are your art heroes?
I was inspired by my teacher Dale Bedford, Monet, and Van Gogh. I especially love Monet’s impressionism; I appreciate how he captured light. I try to emulate some of these artists’ techniques, but really, I’ve learned how to create my own signature style. My go-to style is pop art. The mediums I use include acrylic and oil, paper, magazine, and pastel chalk.
I’m going to take a cue from one of my favorite back-in-the-day reads and ask you a question based on my teenage feen for Seventeen’s “Traumarama” column. Any art-related shameful stories to tell?
The musical artist Dr. Dre music really inspired me when he said he got his start selling his music out of the back of his truck. Because of his story, I decided to swallow my pride and try to sell my art at a service station, and that’s when I got lucky: I made three hundred dollars in under thirty minutes selling my paintings.
It was December, and I did not have anything for Christmas. That day it was raining, but I took a sheet off my bed grabbed a couple of table easels, and gathered up three finished, framed paintings. I took my stuff, walked across the street to the convenience store, and asked the guy working there if I could put a sheet over the pile of Coca-Colas standing in the corner by the window so that customers could see my paintings. I couldn’t sit in the store and paint because the worker could lose his job if his manager came in saw me. I asked him to give me thirty minutes to an hour to sell the paintings and after that, I’d leave so he wouldn’t get in trouble. I was embarrassed to do this, but I had to try to make some Christmas money.
In less than thirty minutes, I had sold all three paintings and made three hundred bucks.
That was a kind service station employee!
Yes, he was a nice guy. When I was on my way out, he said, “Why are you leaving?”
I said, “I sold the paintings.”
“Just that fast?” he said. He was amazed!
Artist or magician? You made those paintings disappear. What a cool story to tell his family and friends.
He will tell that story for a lifetime because he knows how he helped me start my journey. He’s very proud of me. Though I haven’t seen him in a long time, I did give him a painting. I tell the audience this story in my motivational speeches to remind them how important it is to keep trying to sell their work.
After the service station success, I started reaching for the stars, trying to get my art displayed in galleries. The first one I got into was International Galleries. This company reached serious art buyers all over the world. They bought my certified paintings and sold them all over the world, including far-away places like Hong Kong.
Awesome! Did you meet anyone in your travail who had a Dre-like influence on you?
Stanley Lightner is the greatest inspirational person I have ever met. He owned a multi-million-dollar art gallery. I wanted to work for him so badly, yet I did not qualify for any of his positions … so I created my own position and he hired me!
Here in Texas, we take the bull by the horns and follow our dreams.
Who is your biggest supporter?
My business partner and friend Steven Amoxès. I reached out to him during the pandemic. He was a stranger, but I called him up and asked if he was he looking to do something with his art during lockdown. I offered to promote him if he could promote me; consequently, I ended up having two online stores and getting my work into more art galleries.
Support is invaluable.
Yes, and the hard work has really paid off. For example, Steven really encouraged me to paint activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Opal Lee’s portrait after Stanley Lightner had asked me to do it. Once I had finished the portrait, I showed it to Opal, and she loved it.
One week later, she went to the White House to meet with President Biden, and he signed the bill into law making Juneteenth a federal holiday. At the time, I had no idea that I created history by painting this woman’s portrait. Now Fort Worth is building a museum in her honor; one day, my portrait of her will be in it. When the city found out about my Opal Lee art, they contacted me and asked if I would like to display a selection of my paintings in the Fort Worth Community Gallery for four months. I had the opportunity to meet many amazing and influential people. It was a wonderful experience.
That remarkable twist of fate led you further down the path of your dreams. With the hardships you faced up to this point, I’m curious to know if you ever considered an alternative career route.
I never had another career choice in my mind as a young person, but I did get a degree in interior decorating, since I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do.
Now that you’re a full-time artist who works at home, how do you reach new customers?
I have my own gallery online but I prefer to have a storefront gallery so I can interact with customers and inspire people by teaching art classes in person. Unfortunately, the RL gallery that housed my art had to shut down because of COVID.
I’m sorry to hear that. In time, the galleries will reopen, and it seems likely you will be back to making a splash in person. Speaking of appearances, your social media posts showcase your unique style. Who are your fashion icons?
Though I love all kinds of fashion, I’m a big fan of Native American traditional garments—I often wear moccasins and turquoise beaded necklaces, other types of jewelry, and body paints. Mainly, I create my look from my artworks. I’ve made dresses and garments decorated with my paintings on Poshmark, and home décor on RedBubble. For non-profit, I’ve donated some of my artworks to charitable organizations including Genesis Women’s Shelter, interfaith Shelter. Outreach, Jonathan’s Place, and The Family’s Place.
When you reflect upon the large number of works you’ve created and the connections you’ve made due to your drive and ambition, what comprises your individual definition of success?
My art has taken me far. It landed me motivational speaking opportunities and other jobs. To answer your question: success is being able to have the financial freedom to work as I please and making a substantial income doing what I love to do.
What is your personal slogan?
“Anything is possible with Charlotte VanRoss.”
That seems to be the case! I appreciate your candid and entertaining replies, Charlotte. Interviewing you has been a privilege. I wish you continued enjoyment in honing your craft.
Thank you so much! It was a pleasure talking to you.
I am a Native American artist born without hands in Fort Worth, Texas. Since the pandemic hit, I have decided to work harder than ever to encourage other painters to live their dreams by giving them a guide and a plan to help set goals. I do not need inspiration to paint—I love art’s therapeutic qualities.
Please enjoy my collection!
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Next on Artist Spotlight: abstract expressionist Bee Queen.
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Read the eBook version of Primer 2: Masking for 50% off on Google Play & Smashwords ahead of the special print edition’s Spring release. The upcoming paperback version features an outpouring of erotic art by Steven Amoxès.
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