In this June 25, 2013 photo, Jesús David Mendez Sequeda, 17, of Bucaramanga, Colombia, who has no arms or legs, paints with a brush held up to his cheek, at the home of Rodolfo Rodriguez, in Riverside, Conn. Rodriquez is the founder of Open Hearts, Open Doors Inc., which helps poor, handicapped children worldwide find medical and other services. (AP Photo/Greenwich Time, Helen Neafsey)
GREENWICH, Conn.—In the grasp of the artist, seated at a Riverside kitchen table on Tuesday morning, the brush moved swiftly and effortlessly across the canvass. The painter paused only when he looked up to mix a rich array of oil colors in his palette.
As the artist worked, the canvass soon transformed from a blank surface into a vibrant beach scene where palm trees arched over the water and boats rode shimmering waves.
This latest work is just one of the hundreds of paintings created by Jesús David Mendez Sequeda, a 17-year-old from Bucaramanga, Colombia.
He has painted since he was 5 years old, with a passion for using oils to depict the landscape of his homeland.
And he has produced each of those paintings without a vital artist’s tool: hands.
Sequeda was born without arms or legs. But he has learned to navigate the world by making the most of his unconventional frame. He paints by clutching his brush with the stump of his left arm and his cheek — a routine that he perfected years ago.
“I love to paint,” Sequeda said during an interview on Tuesday. “It’s something that moves me.”
Away from the canvas, Sequeda has seen a lot of new scenery during the last week. He arrived in the U.S. last Saturday with his mother, Myriam. During the last four days, they have stayed at the Riverside home of Rodolfo Rodríguez, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Open Hearts Open Doors Inc., which helps poor, needy and afflicted children with life-threatening diseases or illnesses.
Finding and arranging free medical care for young people comprises one of the top goals of Rodríguez’s organization. On Wednesday, he and his 17-year-old daughter, Trystan, are to drive Jesús and Myriam about 100 miles to Springfield, Mass., where they will stay while Jesús is evaluated and eventually fitted with prosthetic arms and legs at the Shriners Hospitals for Children’s campus in Springfield.
When the mother and son return to Greenwich, Rodríguez hopes to have a fitting welcoming present: An exhibition space in town for Jesús’ work. Rodríguez has not secured a venue yet, but he aims to soon find a suitable space to showcase Jesús’ paintings, as well as the art of Linda Rivera, a 25-year-old native of Cali, Colombia. Rivera was born without arms and uses her feet to paint.
Rodríguez is working as well to set up a prosthetics fitting for Rivera, who is also staying with the Rodríguez family.
“I want children to come to the exhibition, so they can be motivated,” Rodríguez said Tuesday. “I want to show that, despite their disabilities, Jesús and Linda are happy. It’s a message. These guys are teaching us a lesson. They’re role models.”
A native of the Colombian capital of Bogotá, Rodríguez, 63, attributes his desire to help Sequeda and Rivera and the thousands of other young people he has aided through his nonprofit to his empathy born from his own hardships as a child. When he was 7 years old, his banker father left Rodríguez, his mother and five siblings for another woman. Rodríguez and his family fell precipitously from affluence into a one-room apartment with no running water, electricity or bathrooms.
“From very well-to-do, we went to the garbage, because he left us with nothing,” Rodríguez said. “So, I made a promise that when I came to this country, I would give away everything I have.”
Rodríguez came to the U.S. when he was 25 and has lived in Greenwich since 1980. He eventually founded a limousine service that he ran until he sold the business about 15 years ago.
Open Hearts Open Doors, which he founded in 1996, is now his principal focus. He often makes long-term commitments to his beneficiaries. He met Sequeda through a mutual friend when the Sequeda was five, and he has financed Sequeda’s education through his nonprofit since then.
“Every single day of my life, I pray for him,” Rodríguez said. “It could be me, it could be my daughter, it could be you, your children. It could be one of us. That’s why I do it. I believe it’s our moral and civic duty to help people and make a better world for everybody.”
After he comes back from Springfield and holds his planned art showcase, Jesús will return to Bucaramanga, where he is a first-year university student studying computer systems. Following graduation, he plans to keep painting and also find work related to his major.
“I hope to inspire others with my paintings,” he added.
Jesús is also looking forward to increased independence with the prosthetics. While he leads a full life that includes other hobbies such as soccer, cards and chess, he is still heavily reliant on Myriam for help with his daily routines. And his disability, combined with the lack of an easy commute to his university, necessitates that he pursue his studies through a distance-learning program.
Myriam also cited the importance of him gaining more autonomy.
“When I pass away one day, I hope he’ll be able to defend himself,” she said.
In the meantime, Jesús draws upon a robust support network that includes three older sisters, in addition to his mother and Rodríguez. The latter expressed his confidence that Jesús would be able to forge a self-determined path.
“While they’re here, I teach them all that I can,” Rodríguez added. “I want to give them a push. I don’t want them to live in dependency. I want them to become the architects of their own destiny.”