Although arthrogryposis made Mary a quadriplegic and robbed her of personal mobility, it didn't dare take much else from the feisty little woman who gets where she wants to go in a motorized wheelchair and has only 3 percent use of her left arm and 7 percent use of her right.
Arthrogryposis didn't take Mary's determination or courage. And it certainly didn't take her sense of humor, intelligence and energy, an amazing trio that has led her to become a published author, editor, illustrator, photographer, teacher and National Art Award recipient.
"We have worked collaboratively in order to create tools for compressed charcoal, vine charcoal and a couple of blending tools which she can use for charcoal drawings," Claunch said. "Mary is a hard working artist and is very receptive to feedback. She has made significant improvements in her observational skills and her ability to push past her comfort zone. I believe that our mutual respect for each other has made this independent course so successful."
Mary's work caught the attention of an international group earlier this year.
"This summer, a representative of the International Mouth and Foot Painting Artists interviewed me and told me that I'm gifted," Mary said. "The organization gave me a grant for three years along with the possibility of advancing to associate member status, which includes a salary."
The MFPA, according to the organization's website, is "an international, for-profit association owned and operated by disabled artists to help them meet their financial needs. Members paint with brushes held in their mouths or feet as a result of a disability sustained at birth or through an accident or illness that prohibits them from using their hands."
Mary said she is honored to be affiliated with such a prestigious group and to have her art valued by other artists. Her work can be seen on her website, The Opportunity to be Real, at http://marycoxpace.wordpress.com/home/, or in the Antiques, Arts & Collectibles Mall on the square in Shelbyville. Her paintings, drawings and books are for sale in her booth there, and if lucky, shoppers will find Mary there as well.
She said she was taught not to complain or feel sorry for herself by her parents, who have strong work ethics. Her father is a retired Maryland state policeman and her mother is a retired Maryland state administrator. When she was a child, Mary's father carried her on his shoulders and introduced her to people wherever they went.
"He called me M.J., and always told me to shake hands with people, and he would hold my right arm up so I could do it," Mary said. "He told me many times to never be ashamed of who I am because I have nothing to be ashamed about."
Mary is thankful for the positive "can do" attitude instilled in her by her parents, but said the greatest gift she ever received is "the love of God that I sense in my heart."
Her extensive education includes a master's degree in theology and a doctorate in biblical studies from Northwestern Theological Seminary. She has written and published six books -- four with a Christian theme -- and also has written newspaper columns and articles for many publications. In addition, she has taught writing classes on the college level and teaches online classes through the Leader in Virtual Studies website.
In one of her classes, which focuses on the power of humor, Mary wrote what might be her life's philosophy: "Though often unnoticed, humor is rooted in much of the Bible. It is no surprise that little has been written on the subject matter. Nevertheless, humor continues to be valuable in communication--tearing down obstacles, encouraging ideas, and challenging people to consider different approaches to life issues."