ART OF MOUTH

Bruce Dellinger spends hours creating the intricate details and shading on each of his drawings, paying careful attention to the smallest lines that he must create by holding a pencil in his mouth.

Everything in Bruce Dellinger’s house has been chewed up. There are bite marks on the telephone cord, gnawed strings hanging from each doorknob and every single pencil in Dellinger’s downtown apartment has been chomped to the core. Dellinger invites me into his cozy studio apartment, then slowly rolls himself into his art studio in his power chair. The room is dark and filled to the brim with books. “There’s an old baseball cap somewhere under that table,” he says, pointing to a long table hidden under piles of papers against the back wall of the studio. “Could you hand it to me? I’m having a bad hair day.”

With his small, bandaged hands, he carefully places the cap on his head, covering his messy ginger locks. He reaches for one of the chewed pencils; the jarring sound of the pencil sharpener breaks the quiet atmosphere in the room. Dellinger places the pencil in his mouth, clamping down with his teeth, and sets to work creating his latest work of art. Timberville, Va. native and James Madison University alumnus Bruce Dellinger is a professional artist. For 25 years he has been creating beautifully intricate drawings using a pencil and his mouth. “I primarily got started with the mouth drawings because of boredom and depression after I had an accident,” he says. On July 11, 1981, when he was just 14 years old, Dellinger was involved in a freak farming accident that changed his life forever. He was working with his family baling hay for a friend when he took a break and straightened out some of the bales lofted in their barn. “When I straightened the third bale out I accidentally knocked over a yellow jacket nest,” Dellinger says. “When that happened, ‘fight or flight’ kicked in.”

Dellinger tripped and fell 25 feet from the barn loft onto the concrete floor, breaking his fifth and sixth vertebrae and forever losing the use of his hands and legs. “We’re all just one step, fall or trip away from having a disability,” he says. After his accident, Dellinger was determined to find a way to lead a productive life. His aunt introduced him to art during his sophomore year of high school. It started as a hobby, but it became a passion and a way for him to contribute to his community.

Dellinger went through several artistic mediums before he discovered his talents with pencil drawings. “I started out with oil paintings, eventually oil paintings led to pastels, pastels led to charcoal, but then I got tired of having black lips, black nose, black eyebrows, and so I eventually settled on pencil,” he says. Dellinger’s drawings are inspired by nature and life in the Shenandoah Valley. Each piece represents a different aspect of folk culture, what Dellinger refers to as “country boy life.” Dellinger recalls the story that inspired his drawing of a wren. “I was hunting with my father one day. I came home and decided to draw a wren because I had seen him out in the woods foraging for food,” he says.

Right now, Dellinger is working on another drawing inspired by hunting life. He slowly guides the pencil along the page, filling in the shadows on the leaves of a tree. Hidden in the tree is a hunter with a bow and arrow, ready to strike. However, Dellinger isn’t particularly happy with the way this drawing is turning out. “It’s not an uncommon thing for me to be almost finished with a drawing and decide to scrap it simply because I don’t like it,” he says.

Drawing by mouth is a slow process — each piece he creates can take anywhere from 40 to 180 hours to complete. For Dellinger, drawing is nearly as automatic breathing. It’s become a habit that he finds both relaxing and therapeutic. “When I’m drawing I try to think about how I can make this stand out more, or make this part look three-dimensional,” he says. “Sometimes I’m humming along to music.” He says his ultimate goal is to make a drawing that looks so realistic that it jumps off the page, while evoking a strong emotional response. “Art has to be peaceful or convey an emotion,” he says. “One of the greatest things any artist can hear is when someone says they find your artwork emotionally pleasing.” Dellinger’s drawings are highly sought after and he makes appearances at about 15 art shows each year. While prints of his drawings sell from $15 to $50, his original drawings have sold for as much as $2,000. Dellinger has gained celebrity status in the art world both locally and internationally. Some buyers come from as far as Switzerland and Germany.

His most cherished and, coincidentally, his most popular drawing is one called “Old Bow Stand.” The drawing depicts a buck and a doe standing under a bow stand — a platform bow hunters build in trees for hunting deer. “Sure enough, the buck is under the stand that the hunter is not in. I think this piece is so popular because there’s something almost spiritual about it, a deeper meaning,” he says. His modern downtown studio apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend, is decorated with an eclectic mix of taxidermy, deer antlers and his own drawings next to those of his favorite artist, inspiration and personal friend, Ken Schuler.

Schuler and Dellinger have been friends for a long time. They each list the other as inspiration. “Bruce is a good guy; he’s had a lot of hardship,” Schuler says. “The way he draws amazes me. Anybody that doesn’t [draw] with their hands — it takes a lot of fortitude to do that,” Schuler says. Dellinger is a staple at art events in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.“He’s been one of our most productive and positive exhibitors. Great talent, wonderful personality. Everybody loves him that sees him,” says Leanne Cloud, director and coordinator for the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Annual Christmas Craft Show where Dellinger’s art was featured over the holiday season. Indeed, Dellinger is quite the character. He never misses an opportunity to make people laugh with his gruff sense of humor and knack for storytelling.

“So you’re graduating this year?” he asks me. “This place gets crazy around graduation. I remember one time when I was riding over by the quad on graduation night … I turned to look at the wrong moment, because the next thing I see is a bunch of bare butt cheeks running the opposite way,” he says with a laugh. Along with a great sense of humor, Dellinger also has a generous spirit. He frequently uses his artistic talent to give back to his local community. Some of his artwork has helped raise money for non-profit organizations. “I belong to this one, Virginia Wheelin’ Sportsmen. They help people with disabilities get out into the great outdoors,” Dellinger says. He is set to become the next president of the organization. With a confident smile on his face and a youthful glimmer in his eyes, Dellinger has no trouble making friends, and he is well known in the Harrisonburg community.

He takes me outside to show off his “hot rod,” a large blue moving van that has been customized to fit his specific needs.  He smiles as he demonstrates the automatic power ramp that lowers from the van with the push of a button located on the armrest of his power chair, then with the push of another button lifts him into the van like an astronaut getting into a spaceship. The best part, he says, is his photo and website banner printed on the back of the truck. “When I drive by everyone knows it’s me because my name is on the car,” he says. “The next day I’ll see someone and they’ll say, ‘Hey I saw you driving downtown the other day!’” Even though Dellinger’s art spawned from tragedy and disability, it has become a positive reinforcement in his life. His drawings are his main source of income. “He’s a testament to human ingenuity,” Schuler says. “Humans can overcome a lot of things. He’s living proof of that.”

Now Dellinger has to overcome the business side of his artwork, gaining more influence and making more sales. “There’s a lot more involved in art than just art. You have to be an entrepreneur and promoter as well,” Dellinger says. Dellinger is striving to make a name for himself in the art world. While he certainly has gained fame in the local community, he hopes one day to have his name associated with other well-known artists like P. Buckley Moss and Ken Schuler.

“The thing about most artists is they’re usually dead before they’re well-known,” he says jokingly.