Oskhosh Artist Paints His Journey Through Self-Portraits

by Trevor Keller
| August 7, 2017

A good portrait paints a picture of someone’s personality. Oshkosh artist Jon Wos thrives on capturing those details. He spends several hours a day in his studio bringing blank canvases to life.

“There's just more to capture in a person I think. You can capture a soul, a character, a mood,” Wos said.

Wos knows how to sketch someone’s story because he learned how to share his own. Wos was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. It affects how the body produces collagen, a bone-strengthening protein. The disease makes Wos’ bones more fragile than the average person. For instance, Wos had 13 broken bones in his body at birth.

“I would fracture several times a year, different bones,” Wos said.

Wos estimates he broke more than 50 or 60 bones in the first 10 years of his life. Simple activities most people take for granted are risky for people with osteogenesis imperfecta. The slightest bump, twist or fall can lead to a bone fracture and a long, difficult recovery process. That risk leaves Wos mostly confined to a wheelchair. It made his childhood difficult, but it also led him toward his passion.

“Any extra time I had was art,” Wos said.

Wos took special interest in painting, ceramics and glass blowing. His big breakthrough as an artist came in college at UW-Oshkosh. A professor encouraged him to transform his canvas into a mirror. He started a series of self-portraits.

“The whole process of the self-portraits was very much a journey into me finding my happiness,” Wos said.

Wos would go on to paint himself dozens of times. The scenes varied from Wos laying in a hospital bed, to images of him breaking free from casts or walking away from his wheelchair.

“I started out exploring my past and the pain and struggle that I went through with having osteogenesis imperfecta,” Wos said.

Wos discovered that even though his body is fragile, his spirit is not.

“No matter what you want to do, there's always going to be something to stand in your way,” Wos said, “Most of the time I think it's yourself.”

Wos learned to manage his condition. Bone fractures became less frequent, and his art flourished.

“It gave me a sense of pride, something that I could do that others couldn't.” Wos said, “A lot of times I'd run up against things that

I couldn’t do that others could, so this was a big self-esteem booster for me.”

Today, Wos is a full time artist, producing everything from portraits to stained glass windows. His work has appeared in galleries from Wisconsin to California. It’s been more than a decade since his last bone fracture. Now he’s not just a successful artist, he’s a happy one.

“I don't see how I can't have a very positive attitude considering the life that I was given and then what has become of it,” Wos said.

Tags: Jon Wos / artist / portraits / osteogenesis imperfecta / brittle bone disease / painting

Trevor Keller is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project who loves photography and is always looking for a new Wisconsin park, trail or scenic overlook to explore.