Cav Moment: Student inspires love through art after traumatic brain injury

Written by Penny Thieme

James McGinnis sharing the love with his parents Susan and Patrick McGinnis. Photo by Penny Thieme

James McGinnis is a walking miracle on a mission to share the message of love through his art. He creates bright, whimsical paintings, pottery and clay sculptures that are meant to inspire viewers to lighten up and love one another. His love for art itself, though, is new.

James was a popular, healthy high school student who played on the Olathe East High School football team. He learned to play the cello because it was fun and relaxing, but said before his injury, his only creative claim to fame was being “The best last chair in the orchestra.” His real passion was competitive athletics and he planned to become a chemical engineer, “so [he] could make a lot of money.”

But in 2014, his life, and that of his family, changed forever.

“It was third quarter of the second [football] game of the year,” Patrick McGinnis, James’ father said. “He went in for a tackle and his head got twisted to the left. He got up from that play and played another down…And after that play he collapsed on the field.”

McGinnis suffered a traumatic brain injury known as a Subdural Hematoma (SDH), meaning he suffered a head injury strong enough to burst blood vessels in his brain, causing pressure to build in the skull. McGinnis went into a coma for days and the compression damaged the delicate tissue of his brain, leaving him unable to move or speak.

Oct. 29, 2019, James McGinnis, poses next to his clay sculpture embellished with hearts and the word LOVE on display in the in the FADS building. Photo by Penny Thieme

The doctors said it was permanent and told his parents that even if he woke up from the coma, he would be a vegetable. His parents, Patrick and Susan McGinnis, felt their son was communicating with them during his coma even though doctors said it was no more than involuntary physical responses and their hopes at play. The McGinnises clung to their faith. They continued talking to him and watching for signs of life.

Things changed when Susan and Patrick, staying attentively by James’ bedside, watched him sign “I love you,” using American Sign Language. His parents knew their son was still there and attempting to communicate with them, despite doctors’ claims.

“When James was young and going off to school with his friends, I always signed, ‘I love you’ [instead of saying it] so he wouldn’t be embarrassed,” Susan said.  “That was a special sign to us, to our family. That is how we communicated.”

While in his coma, James says he felt a distinctly peaceful presence and saw a beautiful light. He described the light as God or Jesus who told him he wasn’t finished — that he had a mission to teach people to love one another.

“God said, ‘Go back James, you have more love to share,’” James said. “But I felt so much peace that I wanted to stay.”

Doctors were amazed when James woke but continued to insist that he would never be able to walk or talk. Again, Susan and Patrick didn’t believe them and fought doctors and insurance companies to get the quality care and services their son needed. Through extensive physical and speech therapies, James gradually gained small commands over his body. Once again, he proved his parents right.

Paintings (Left to Right) Self Portrait, Abstract, Meeting Jesus and sculpture titled, Love One Another by James McGinnis. Expressing himself through art brings James joy. Art is therapeutic. It gives him relief from his chronic pain and a non-verbal means of communicating and expressing himself. Photo by Penny Thieme

The seemingly simple tasks of walking and communicating require a tremendous amount of energy, concentration and fortitude for James. He still struggles with balance, involuntary shakes, chronic pain, speech, short-term memory loss and exhaustion, but is fully present and engaged in life. With the love of his family, a sense of humor and indomitable spirit, James has done the impossible.

While attending an Amy Thompson run fundraiser, James had a chance encounter with artist John Bukaty who was barefoot, and painting along to music.

“I saw a guy just jamming out, painting,” James said. “When John Bukaty first met me, he thought I was, and I quote, ‘a drunk heckler’ because of the way I walk and talk. I would say something like, ‘ooh, oh wow!’ he thought I was making fun of him, but I was serious.”

The two became friends and Bukaty encouraged James to express himself through painting. Susan laughed recounting her son’s pre-head trauma words to her: “Mama, art is a waste of time.”

Art continues to be a big part of James’ healing and mission to share his message of love. He has exhibited his art and taken Painting I, Ceramics I and American Sign Language classes at the college. This semester he is taking Ceramics II on campus.

Since James’ brains injury, he and his family are more aware of how precious life is. Life is a daily blessing for James. He sees the good in everything and everyone. When he took a fall from the electric pottery wheel, he got back up and tried again. When another student asked, “How can you get back up so soon after a fall like that?” James responded, “If I’m not falling, I’m not pushing myself.”

James poses with his ceramic sculpture in progress. Ceramic students were given assignment to create a new work of art based on a famous work of art. James, chose to give Edvard Munch’s, The Scream a little love and humor by adding “I love you” in American Sign Language to the iconic imagery. Photo by Penny Thieme

“When I feel like giving up, I remember seeing Jesus and God’s words: ‘Go back James, you have more love to share,’” James said. “And when He tells you to do something, you don’t argue.”

That is his life’s mission and mantra, the driving force behind everything he does. Love is his guiding principle and gives him the strength to continue through his many challenges.

James, who was never to walk again, will be riding on a float in a Mardi Gras parade this year. He still loves football but is no longer choosing his career path by how much money he can make. He makes art that makes people smile and remember to love one another, and he now aspires to become a motivational speaker, inspiring others through his story of hope, faith and love.

Story by Penny Thieme



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