Drawing Without Hands The Bruce Dellinger Story

Bruce-Delinger drawing

Rick Sizemore

Director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center

Anne Hudlow

Director of the WWRC Foundation



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This is the VR workforce studio inspiration, education, and affirmation at work the workforce and disability employment podcast from the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, a division of the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitation services. The VR Workforce Studio is published by our foundation at www.rcf.org and is available in iTunes and at vrworkforcestudio.com

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Bruce (Snippet): “…individuals with disabilities want to be productive no matter what it is and so… you know they want to feel like they’re empowered by going out and doing a good job to, you know they want to be productive in life and if given the opportunity and you do hire a person with a disability I think you’re gaining a valuable employee or gaining a contributing member to society…”

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Rick: On today’s episode of the VR Workforce Studio; Drawing without Hands the Amazing Story of Bruce Delliger. I’m Rick Sizemore director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center.

Anne: And I’m Anne Hudlow director of the WWRC Foundation, and together we’re opening up the VR Workforce Studio, so individuals with disabilities with disabilities can share their courageous stories of Vocational Rehabilitation. Along the way we also talk to the champions of business and industry that hire individuals with disabilities

Rick: On today’s show a successful business man and critically acclaimed artist, known for his intricate and unbelievably realistic pencil drawings of nature. His work can found in homes and galleries all around the world, but what’s even more amazing is the clever highly unusual and ingenious techniques Bruce Delliger uses to create these masterpieces without using his hands.

Anne: We’ll also talk with Self-Employment Enterprise Specialist Larry Roberts from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, and his reflections on what it takes to make it in business being self-employed as an individual with a disability

Rick: Bruce Delliger is an artist with a spinal cord injury and only has limited use of his hands. You simply won’t believe which body parts he uses to hold the pencil and draw on the pallet!

Anne: Bruce received the Art to Art Pallet Award in Ohio and has won two best In-Print Awards from the Printing Industry of Virginia among many others; he has also been featured in numerous magazines, newspapers, and television programs for his amazing talent. Rick there’s a quote from the Art to Art Pallet that says that “Bruce has never used his unusual method of painting as a sensation, but has let his work stand on its own merit; the refusal to be weak and unyielding in his passion of natural beauty is finally paying off”.

Rick: Bruce Delliger Welcome to the Podcast, let’s get started with your story of disability.

Bruce: Basically an old farm boy; country boy. I grew up in the country and worked on the farm pretty much all of my life and I was getting ready to leave middle school and start my freshman year at Broadway high school. I was an upcoming football player at that particular time. So I was doing some weight training, but I also had failed my 8th grade English course so I was taking summer school and It was during the break of our summer school, July and it was over the break and my father asked me if I wanted to go with him to assist a friend of ours bale hay down in Orkney Springs, Virginia and so I can remember that day it’s like you know (what) psychologists call it a flashbulb memory and I’d gone with my father. I remember riding through the mountains with him and we finally got down to the property where we were going to help bale hay and of course you know middle of summer time, dealing with hay you get it everywhere you know. So we worked a few hours. My first cousin and I; our job was to stay on the back of the wagon and grab the bales with old hog hooks and pull them back on to be stacked, and so you know the more work you are doing, the more sweating you are doing, hays flying everywhere, you’re getting itchy and scratchy so I told my father. I said were going up to the old barn to sit in the shade of the barn and he said well don’t go far. So we didn’t go too far, the barn was about 500 yards away, so we walked up there, and my first cousin and I. We sat in the barn and I happened to look up and there was this long conveyer belt that went all the way to the top of the barn and I got up there and I notice that some bales of hay were out were out of alignment so I crawled up the loft, surveyed my situation pretty good and I figured I could straighten these three bales up and then come on back down. What I didn’t know was that there was a yellow jackets nest on one of the beams right above me when I picked up the third bale. I inadvertently knocked it (the nest) over and I saw the nest that fell and it had bees in it and first reaction fight or flight or get out of there. When I did, it startled me so I went to run to get away from them and I tripped on a hay bale. I tripped on one of the strings that was on it, lost my balance, and fell 25 feet off the loft head first and I landed on concrete and boards and broke the fifth and sixth vertebrae in my neck. Everyone that ever knew me; quadriplegic for the rest of my life so that’s how I became disabled. I did my first initial rehab at children’s rehabilitation center. It’s only later that I came back to Woodrow Wilson to do vocational rehabilitation and where I studied early childhood education and got my teachers aid certificate before I started with my regular college education. How I got started in art, primarily was during my sophomore year in high school. I couldn’t really be out doors, play sports you know throw the football around, go swimming or whatever and going through the whole process of adolescence and dealing with all the psychological issues that are associated with that. I had to confront that I was going to be probably living life from a wheelchair. So it was my aunt who suggested I take an oil painting; a hobby to get my mind off my problems.

Anne: How fortunate that you had such a supportive person in your life you know, Bruce I can’t imagine what must’ve been like for her and for you. Why do you think she recommended art?

Bruce: I had taken one art class and elective when I was in 8th grade you know just dabble like most students do. I didn’t really have any talent for it; didn’t think I had any talent for it. I did do some very rudimentary stuff, but beyond that nothing.

Rick: So you do have some use of your arms?

Bruce: Some use of my arms yes. I can drive and…

Rick: So let’s get into your art and it’s certainly incredible work, stands on its own merit, but it’s really unusual. These are incredible pieces we’re talking about here and the technique that you use is just amazing. Describe the technique you use to create these amazing works of art.

Bruce: Well, I first started out with oil painting like I said with my aunt. Eventually I moved into pastels and eventually I moved to use charcoal since you got to use your mouth to control everything. You get tired of getting black lips, black nose, black eyebrows and charcoal dust everywhere so I eventually fell in love with pencil just because it gave me the feel that I wanted to have. It was kind of my style very basic.

Anne: Bruce can you please walk us through how you evolved this incredibly unique style of drawing?

Bruce: Primarily I’ve worked very, very hard to incorporate a lot of things into my artwork and one of the investments that I was able to purchase. I purchased a draftsmen’s table and I used to work on the vanity at my house, lean way over and put my arm behind my wheelchair and lean forward and try to draw that way. Now that I am getting older of course I have invested in a draftsmen’s table. I found a good draftsmen’s table for like 800 bucks on eBay one day and a friend of mine said well I can go pick it up and its only 40 miles away so I’ll go and pick it up for you. So we invested in a draftsmen’s table and the draftsmen’s table has made it easier for me to tilt it down but one of the problems with drawing with your mouth, I can tell you a problem with drawing with your mouth is that your neck will only stretch so far on a piece of paper and so a lot of times, what I have to do is I’ll have to turn the composition upside down and work on it backwards and upside down so it’s really funky and how I do it. I’ve studied a lot of other artists in the field. There have been numerous artists, there’s another local artist around here that gave me a lot pointers when I was first starting out his name was Ken Schuler. I kind of liked his style but I wanted to have my artistic ability to stand on its own merit so I didn’t want to copy what he did, but I did want to do what felt right for me.

Rick: So describe how it works; as an artist how do you physically draw?

Bruce: Basically what I do is lay my arm up on the draftsmen’s table and I will work back and forth in a side-to-side motion. It all depends on what type of animal that I’m working on like if it’s an eagle I have to darken in the feathers real good so I have to place my hand on the draftsmen’s table, hold the pencil in my teeth, and slowly go back and forth and darken in an area that I want to darken in and now that I’ve gotten older I also need glasses so you know it’s…

Anne: But what amazes people is the intricacy of your work the detail is amazing…

Bruce: For me I’m always trying to capture the realism of an animal you know a lot of what I do is work with wildlife and nature you know its things I’ve learned. Since I’m trying to capture the outdoors. We as artists tend to notice things more than a lot of other people wouldn’t notice such as how the light captures on a tree, how a shadow falls across the ground. We pay particular attention to all that type of detail and for me I try to incorporate that into my drawings. A lot of the inspiration comes from the outdoors you know fish, birds, nature, things that you see. Give you one prime example, my father, and I were out hunting in the woods one day and we sat there and we were sitting in a blind and I watched this wren. This wren was looking for some grubs. He’s about 40 yards away from us jumping from tree to tree to tree and I told my father I was going to draw that wren and I tried to remember what the wren looked like with his tail up and how he looked and so I started out with an outline and it’s just a very very light sketch of the image itself such as the bird, you’ll have to draw the tail going up and slowly I started out with that and work on one particular detail at a time like wrens have a little bit of a longer beak you know it got to be a little bit darker underneath than it is on top because the light is reflecting down and so I think the trick to my art is I try to make it as realistic as I possibly can make it. You would be able to see this hanging up on a wall and go, “Oh.”

Anne: Everyone knows and your art stands on its own, but what makes it so amazing is that you do it through this incredible technique that you have developed. This is disability employment.

Bruce: At it’s finest.

Anne: Oh, absolutely, You earn a living as an artist which is hard to do, Right, even before you add on disability. So tell us about your art studio and your online business and your art shows if you would.

Bruce: The online business, I have a website called www.bruce-dellinger.com . We’ve basically set up the website where it’s real user friendly and this can go worldwide. You know I’ve had orders from Australia, Argentina, a few from California so the prints get out there from all over with media. You have to market yourself, you know. Webs open up a whole whole new world. You can go on YouTube find me on YouTube if you type in Bruce Delliger you find me there. You google Bruce Delliger, you’ll find information about my art work, about the programs that I have been involved in and various other volunteer work that I do, etc. And I have various shows and they will be up online here soon so you can catch me. I mainly do a lot of shows within the Virginia area. I have broadened out to basically do three shows in northern Virginia this year and kind of broadening my scope at little bit.

Rick: For so many people the internet has leveled the playing field especially individual with a disability.

Anne: Right and we’ll have contact information and show notes in this podcast so we’ll be able to direct people to that. What suggestions would you have for a person with a disability who is trying to start a business because you run a successful business from a wheelchair?

Bruce: You have got to promote yourself. You have to work really, really hard and really, really diligently. Some of the information that I always tell people is if you’re living around a campus, it’s always good to go to their business programs that are on campus and they will provide you with how to set up your taxes so you can pay the federal government, pay state taxes, collect your tax. I would also suggest you go online and see what other folks have done as well, explore your resources. It also helps if you have a strong community, backing that supports you, friends, family, community that is very important if your community stands behind you, your family stands behind you then that is a tremendous resource. Tell them what you’re doing, what you’re thinking about doing and there are people out there who would just love to help you get where you’re going.

Rick: Let me ask a little different question. What is your favorite piece of art? Tell us about your works and which one you cherish.

Bruce: I have several favorite pieces which I’ve drawn. I have to say that I got one called “The old bow stand” which is a buck and a doe underneath as old stand, there is no hunter there. That’s kind of a unique piece which is only in circulation in the smaller version at the moment. It will be available in a larger version later on but that has to be one. Of course, “Pride and Glory” which is the eagle which were going to be donating to Woodrow Wilson here at the moment, and another one would have to be called “Hold Tight” since I’m a advent hunter and belong to the Wheelin’ Sportsmen program. It’s got this buck being very calm, very still, a hunter walking passed him so the hunter is not even aware of his presence there at all. Believe me I’ve seen animals do this sort of thing, they will crouch down really low and you could walk by him and not even notice them at all so.

Anne: Many have said that you are a business man who gives back to his community.

Bruce: And I am the official artist for the Wheelin’ Sportsmen. I do a lot with that organization. I donate a print to their organization each year and each year that money stays with the local chapel to help other individuals who want to enjoy the great outdoors through sporting events.

Rick: Well Bruce, technology is a wonderful thing for an artist, particularly in this day and time an online artist.

Bruce: Yea it is, it opens up a broad new avenue. Going back to some of the suggestions that you said for a job and it’s good if you contact your Division of Rehabilitative Services they will also assist you in promoting your business, starting out with your business. So there’s a lot of work I’ve done across the years. You know, contacting Woodrow Wilson for advice on a lot of things.

Anne: Well Bruce we are getting to the point of where we’re going to have to wrap up, but I would like to ask this; I’m told you are often seen at 5 o’clock in the morning…

Rick: I’ve seen him! 5 o’clock in the morning!

Anne: Rick has seen you! Rolling up in the Dump trailer getting wrapped and strapped down and traveling via 4-wheeler into the woods through the dark to go hunting…

Rick: You should see the trailer bouncing and Bruce there with his rifle it’s a sight to see.

Anne: So what’s it like to be a person who is an artist who loves to be in nature and see all these things to be a hunter with a disability?

Bruce: Wow! Even though you’re out in the woods to take an animal, for me sometimes it’s just by studying. Being able to study nature in its own environment you get to experience so much more, it’s what you take into it. Now of course, each year the Augusta County chapter hosts a hunt here at Woodrow Wilson. And believe it or not I’ve never taken an animal from the Woodrow Wilson property however, I have had the opportunity of watching a red fox crawl up on a log and go to sleep and he’s like 20 or 30 yards away from me which is something you don’t see every day when you’re driving in an automobile down the road and it’s just really, really nice to kind of see that. You know you can see some of the deer walk through the woods, they’re very, very small, they are too young to harvest so you’re having the opportunity to watch them walk by you. It’s rolled up into experiences to where I find ideas to give me inspiration.

Anne: Any closing thoughts to be a very successful artist in vocational rehabilitation?

Bruce: The biggest thing I can tell anyone that does have a disability. There is always something you can do, if you’re an employer you’re getting ready to think about hiring a person with a disability to start out with individuals with disabilities want to be productive in life, no matter what it is and so… you know they want to feel like they’re empowered by going out and doing a good job. You know they want to be productive in life and if given the opportunity and you do hire a person with a disability, I think your gaining a valuable employee or gaining a contributing member to society and so I think with that you’d be able to have an individual who is really, really going to do their best to stand by you.

Rick: Bruce It’s been an incredible honor to interview you. You are an amazing artist, a great business man, and a great American thank you for being on the podcast today.

Anne: Thank you Bruce, it’s really been an honor to be here with you, we appreciate your time!

Bruce: Thank you.


Rick: Larry Roberts serves as the self-employment enterprise coordinator with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services in his role he provides technical assistance and direction to DARS consumers as they seek to advance their concepts for self-employment. He makes recommendations to management on the viability and most importantly sustainability of proposals and assists the VR counselors in case management. Larry has over 25 years of small business consulting experience and previously served as the Executive Director of the Community Business Partnership, a Northern Virginia based nonprofit assisting the disabled and disadvantaged communities in creating small businesses. The partnership included a small business development center, a woman’s business center, and a micro loan program. Larry welcome to the podcast!

Larry: Thank you Rick, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Anne: Welcome Larry, Larry we’d like to ask you a couple of questions on how was to work Bruce Delliger. Do you have some thoughts on your experience working with Bruce?

Larry: Sure, Bruce was a genuine pleasure to work with, he was prepared, he was experienced in business to a certain degree, and knew exactly what he needed to do as far his goals particularly financially; you know it’s a challenge sometimes to sort out what do we really need to make out of the business in order to be sustainable and Bruce understood that. He understood the nature of what he was doing, but we had to develop new strategies because he had experienced some health issues and that had a dramatic impact on the business. So when we worked together, it was primarily to refresh some of the strategies that have been attempted before and to see if we could provide some meaningful assistance that would allow him to leverage that into appropriate cash flow.

Anne: Great! I’m sure with each person it’s a unique situation, but what are some the keys to his success that you can pinpoint?

Larry: I think probably one of the most important things for Bruce was his preparation. You know a lot of individuals are good at the craft or the trade that they practice and Bruce is a skilled artist, at the same time they’re not particularly experienced in business and that could be a very difficult marriage to bring together. For some people it’s straightforward to be able to understand the day to day activities that have to occur and the long range financial vision you have to develop in order to be able to run a business successfully. For Bruce he had a lot of that type of experience previously and it was a much better fit. For our circumstance it was a great opportunity to help a genuine individual move forward with business and become sustainable again.

Anne: That’s great, that’s great… I know that starting your own business has a lot of risk and could have a lot of reward, what are some suggestions that you would suggest for someone with a disability who wants to start their own business?

Larry: Well I think because of my experience in it, I would say that it’s important to be practical in your expectation and to be prepared. You know there are a lot of opportunities out there for training for individual technical assistance at really minimal cost or no cost, the small business development center network itself and generally made for small workshop charge a small fee, but individual consults are free. You need to schedule and talk to an individual about some of the realities you’re facing to move forward. When I work with a new client, what I’m doing is beginning with a personal budget. I want to have an expectation of what their true financial situation is from the outset and given that the context of what they want to do in business versus what they need to make and what we can do to help them get there, has to be some practical realities there that we face and address. But obviously preparation is an important piece of it and if someone has great experience in business that’s a wonderful start. If on the other hand they need to start from scratch, then be prepared to take some time and don’t expect to support yourself quickly through self-employment.

Rick: Larry we always hear about the starving artist, but in the case of Bruce Delliger this guy has really made his way as an artist…

Larry: He has truly, and Bruce is a wonderful marriage of qualities. He’s not just an excellent artist, he’s an experienced accountant. For example he understood how to keep good records, he understood how to price his product appropriately, he was good at managing the details of running that business, and understood how to basically schedule his entire day even when he didn’t have an event where he was making sales to be prepared for that event, to make his production, to do his marketing, to do his administrative function. So Bruce has a tremendous capacity and much of that has to be taught to individuals that have no experience in business certainly a learnable skill, or set of skills, but for Bruce he came to me with a lot of preparation he already understood much of what I needed to work with him on.

Rick: If an individual with a disability wants to contact you, where can they find you?

Larry: Through the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. What we’re essentially doing is doing intake at the local level where a local office may be, and they are assigned a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. That counselor then talks with them to develop an individual plan for employment. But for a lot of our consumers’ normal jobs are just not very workable because of the nature of their disabilities it could be that they have different hour or an inability work a certain number of hours, and self-employment may be the right fit for them. Now certainly it helps if we have a good concept and they’re able to bring some resources to the table because we have certain policies that dictate that they have to be an investor in the business as well, but that referral comes from the VR Counselor to me, contacting me directly would mean that I’ll end up sending them back to the local office to do intake, and to make sure that it’s an appropriate referral for self-employment that fits our program.

Rick: We’ve been talking with Larry Roberts of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative services, Larry thank you for being on the podcast today

Larry: It’s been a pleasure, thank you for having me.


Rick: We are with Duane Rohr the manager of workforce incentives from CVS Health. Welcome to the podcast.

Duane:   Good Morning, thank you for having me. Lots of cool things going on.

Rick: We just talked to Bruce Dellinger, and this amazing artist was featured in the “Don’t Dis Me” video that CVS Health produced for Disability Awareness month here a year or so ago. Wow. What an incredible, what an incredible story.

Duane: Yes it is, it is very incredible. It’s exciting to see that having a disability doesn’t set people back, they grow and they fulfill what their dream is and what they want to do.

Rick:   What’s the reaction been to the “Don’t Dis Me” Video from the audiences and the many people you’ve talked to?

Duane: I’ve had nothing but good feedback on it and I use the video when I have visited a lot of other disability agencies. They really love the message being sent out there. I think it is very very impactful that we are trying to get rid of the word dis on there and just go with abilities. Because these individuals they have the ability to set out and do whatever they want to do. I think the video just really hits home with people and really gets them to see that these individuals really do have the abilities to move forward in life.

Rick:   Ann, we just had this great interview with Bruce Dellinger, what an incredible artist.

Anne: Oh, Wow. He is incredible. That’s one of the first things people see when they walk in for a tour here, is the picture that you show them, and that’s incredible.

Rick:   It really is incredible, but this video “Don’t Dis Me” really gives people a chance to actually see him.   If you would like to see him, go to VRWorkforceStudio.com look for that Don’t Dis Me” video and at the end of the video, you will actually see Bruce there painting, actually drawing with pencil in his mouth and as he said in his interview, Anne what do you think of this, he turns the picture upside down and backwards as he’s drawing it. (Laugh)

Anne:   I’m still using crayons, I’m still using crayons. (laugh) It’s totally amazing.

Rick: But Duane, the support that CVS Health has offered to individuals with disabilities is just superb and this video has been just another way that you’ve helped reach out to the community of people with disabilities and create opportunities for them.

Duane: Yes, I think the partnership has been, you’re right, it has been a blessing on both ends here. It has been very rewarding for us here at CVS to see how our partnership is helping these individuals, helping individuals get jobs. I know we’ve had, you know, at least 12 hires that I am aware of at this point which I think is a great number for the first year being in this program.   I think that having a video like this and the partnership with CVS is just invaluable to us.

Rick: And down in our down in our Materials Handling Program that incredible mock store that has led to lots of people going to work. It is an exciting time for vocational rehabilitation to see these successes and for this workforce driven curriculum in the era of WIOA when one of the focal points is business engagement to have a partner like CVS Health—It’s it’s–these are good times.

Anne:   Absolutely, absolutely, and I think when people come for tours and we show them the CVS Health store, they are really amazed at at—the quality of the instruction and the realness, and how this is becoming a reality.

Rick: Well again. Duane Rohr, CVS Health, thank you for your support and good luck to CVS in all the initiatives that you are taking on to help people with disabilities become employed and lead better lives. Anne: Thank you. Thank you Duane.

Anne: Thank you for joining us for today’s episode, you can find our contact information in the show notes at vrworkforcestudio.com if you’d like to know more please visit our foundation website at www.rcf.org until next time won’t you join us in creating hope and a path forward.

Rick: I’m Rick Sizemore

Anne: And I’m Anne Hudlow, sharing the courageous stories of Vocational Rehabilitation.

VR workforce studio inspiration, education, and affirmation at work the workforce and disability employment podcast from the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center a division of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitation services. The VR Workforce Studio is published by our foundation at www.rcf.org and is available in iTunes and at vrworkforcestudio.com.

Sponsor: Support for the distribution and publication of the VR Workforce Studio comes from CVS Health; CVS Health helping people on their path to better health.

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