Jonathan Whitlock knew art would be his calling. He started drawing young, expanded his passion to painting and then majored in studio art at Southern Virginia University. He ended his freshman year with a gallery showing.
Jonathan was still in college, back home in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County for summer break, when he sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that put him in a coma for five months. When he emerged, he could not walk, see out of his left eye or use his left hand.
For an artist, that could have been a hard stop to a promising career. But that’s not how this story ends.
Today, almost 20 years later, Jonathan is a professional artist. He has gallery showings. He wins awards. He offers his work in the ASPIE gallery, where it is popular, and he lectures about his accident and his experience.
“There are days he gets frustrated with his current disabilities,” his mother, Annette Whitlock, wrote in The Long Run, her 2018 book about the accident. “But his natural easy-going nature and sense of humor help him get through these times.”
Jerry Buckwalter, the founder and CEO of ASPIE, says that Jonathan embodies the organization, where the mission is to help artists with cognitive disabilities grow more self sufficient.
“Jonathan shows us all just what artists with disabilities can do,” Buckwalter said. “He’s the best example of someone who has overcome extreme adversity, reconnected with his passion and made a growing career producing works that people love.”
Jonathan’s journey back to artwork was long and slow. It was 10 months before he could hold a paintbrush. He remains confined to a wheelchair. Once a lefty, he had to learn to paint with his right hand and to use longer strokes to offset the spasms that occasionally take place.
But his talent and fluency in multiple styles is obvious. Jonathan favors oil and paints the world around him, taking inspiration from Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens, family trips to Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia—even the fruit in his mother’s kitchen. For his Seasons of Fruit collection, Jonathan took photos of the fruit and made sketches before beginning to paint, a necessity because the subjects were long since eaten by the time he laid brush to canvass.
Jonathan’s floral paintings are inspired by the Amish bouquets seen at roadside stands near his home town. “They are interesting,” he said in an interview in 2018. “They are unique. They are creatures with their own quirks. They are pretty.”
He has done portrait work as well, such as Contemplating Heritage. The work was inspired by Jonathan’s friend, Leslie, who is Native American. He decided to set her in a museum, looking at a wall of pottery and vases. “She’s contemplating her heritage, her cultural past, and reflecting,” he said.
Not everything Jonathan does is so traditional. Having started a self portrait before his accident, he finished it years into his recovery. His painting US 222 South depicts the artist in his wheelchair on the road where his accident took place.
Discernment is a massive oil-on-canvas work, more than four feet tall and six feet wide, that stands as Jonathan’s largest work to date. It presented difficulty because of his wheelchair but Jonathan persevered. Discernment was born of a sketch he made rather than an image that he saw. “Most of it came out of my noggin,” he says. “It’s a way of showing expression.”
In his painting Cityscape, Jonathan depicts a man on a skyscraper’s ledge, looking down. “I didn’t want a normal cityscape,” Jonathan said. “I wanted a unique viewpoint. I don’t want my pictures to be scenes. I want them to be experiences.”