Life hasn’t always been easy for Shakeyla Shinholster.
Shakeya has arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a condition in which fetal joints and muscles don’t develop properly, resulting in joint deformity. Some people with AMC only have one or two joints affected while others cannot breathe on their own.
Shakeyla doesn’t have use of her arms and legs, but that hasn’t stopped her from painting — or from plenty of other things she loves to do. She can draw and paint with the pencil or brush between her teeth and, with help from her mom, family, and friends, she also films a weekly YouTube comedy show called Monday Madness, maintains active social media accounts, writes, and is building a pretty exciting public speaking platform.
In short, Shakeyla does whatever she feels called to do – and she does it all with flair.
Her mom’s doctors would be stunned by all she’s accomplished. When Shakeyla was born in August 1994 at Grady Memorial Hospital, they weren’t optimistic about her chances of survival.
“They really didn’t think that I was going to make it,” she says. “Before I was even born, the doctors asked my mom if they could keep my body for study after I passed.”
That didn’t happen, though, because Shakeyla defied the odds — and has continued to do so her entire life. At four years old she underwent surgery so that she would be able to sit in a wheelchair.
“My mom says that I couldn’t even wiggle when I was born,” Shakayla says. “I could barely even turn my neck. But I had lots of physical therapy and now I have much more movement.”
“She was born a fighter,” says her cousin, Jeremy Tuck. “I’m a few years older and I just remember watching her determination, even when she was tiny. She couldn’t crawl, of course, so we taught her to ‘crawl’ by wiggling along on her back. She just meets every single challenge and figures out how to make it work. It was very inspiring, as a kid, to see her decide on something and then stick to it. She’s still an inspiration.”
Shakeyla, who grew up in Gay, Georgia, started school in Newnan before transferring to Warm Springs. She then attended another couple of schools before her family moved to Peachtree City when she was 14. She graduated from McIntosh High School and went to Georgia Military College for a year.
“I was really interested in becoming a therapist,” she says. “I really wanted to help people and I thought that I would be good at it. But I felt like I was spending all my time just trying to pass tests and not really learning anything that I was going to be able to use in a practice, so I decided it might not be for me and that I needed to find a different way to help people.”
Though she didn’t know it then, she was already well started on her journey. All throughout school, teachers and friends had asked her to draw for them. She always did it and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t necessarily a passion. In fact, she didn’t even take art classes in high school.
“In high school I wanted to be a singer,” she says. “I love TLC, Coldplay, country music — everything really. I was obsessed with Brandy. I just love music and that’s what I wanted to do. I even named my wheelchair Rain because it’s purple at the bottom and my mom and I love Prince. I used to tell my friends I was going to go on American Idol. Actually I still want to be a singer. And an actor and a writer and lots of other things. I even write my own songs. But somehow music hasn’t quite fallen together for me — yet.”
Shakeyla also wasn’t particularly confident in school, even though she had lots of friends.
“I used to care way too much about what people think of me,” she says. “It really held me back. I was always worried about what I would look like to other people and what they might say.”
All that changed when Shakeyla was 22. A nasty illness had landed her in the hospital and things were not looking good.
“I laid there in the hospital bed,” she says, “and all I could think was ‘if I don’t make it out of here I haven’t done anything I want to do.’ I decided right then that if I got out I was not gonna worry about what people thought anymore I was going to do what I wanted and what God wanted me to do.”
Primarily, she felt, that meant drawing and painting, and God, Shakeyla says, is very much a part of her art. Most of her paintings come from visions and dreams, which she believes are God’s way of speaking to her.
“I am inspired by other painters,” she says. “Van Gogh, Jean-Michel Basquiat, the other artists in the Newnan Art Association — and by things I see on TV or around me every day. But I am a very strong person of faith and I really believe that this is the way God has chosen to use me. When I paint in front of people, like at the Newman Art Walk, I always ask God what I should work on because he always tells me what someone else is going to need to see that day. Honestly if I get blocked, if I’m not connected to my art, it’s because I’m not connected to God. I’m not reading my Bible or meditating or focusing on my purpose. I need space to see what God wants to show me. Honestly, I didn’t get into art. Art got into me.”
Shakeyla’s work features many subjects from bears to flowers to stars to landscapes and more.
“Her work appeals to a lot of people,” says Paulo de Sousa, owner of Southern Art Dance in Newnan, where many of Shakeyla’s paintings are on display and for sale. “And she, herself, is fearless. She decides on something and she goes for it. She doesn’t let her physicality get in her way. And she’s not afraid to experiment. She sings, she writes – she’s all about possibility.”
While Shakeyla paints whatever she feels inspired to paint, she really loves painting people, especially African American people.
“I believe folks need to see black people shown in beautiful ways,” she says. “And I believe that’s what God wants too. I love everybody. I believe firmly that everybody was created in the image of God. But I’m black and I think it’s important to have and make art that features black people.”
Seeing all people as beautiful is extremely important to Shakeyla. In addition to painting, she also visits schools to speak to children about following their dreams and being kind to one another.
“People underestimate me a lot,” she says. “And I think they underestimate each other, too. And then it’s easier to be mean. I tell kids to be more open, to be kind to one another. Differences are what makes the world interesting. Differences are good because putting different people together makes us all stronger, better. We can learn from each other. You never know how your skills might work with someone else’s. You might be able to accomplish something together you could never do on your own. That’s cool!”
Shakeyla is also a published author. Her book, Expressions Soar, features prints of many of her popular paintings along with several of her short stories and poems. It took a lot of hard work, but she says it was well worth it.
“It took me almost five years to write the book,” she says. “But I’m so proud of it. I love to write, actually. I’ve written other stories and poems. I even wrote a screenplay. My big dream is to give it to Michael B. Jordan and see him make it into a movie!”
Shakeyla says friends and family have always been important in helping her achieve her goals and she’s grateful.
“My mom is honestly my best friend,” she says. “She’s the first person I see every morning and the last face I see at night. She’s really incredible and I’m blessed to have her.”
Her mom, Angelia, feels the same way.
“Shakeyla is very smart and very persistent,” she says. “She works so hard. I watch her wake up with a dream or a vision of a painting and she just works on it day after day. It’s amazing. But she’s also a very loving person and that’s important too.”
“Amazing. Incredible. Unbelievable. Those are the words I use to describe Shakeyla,” says Lonnie Walls, her eighth grade teacher. “You know, I used to assign a lot of group work and I’d walk around the tables and Shakeyla would be the one doing the writing for her group. I’d ask why and the kids would always say ‘she’s a better writer than us!’ I always thought that was really great.”
Not everyone was kind, of course, and that’s still true.
“People are mean sometimes,” Shakeyla admits. “They say things or stare or whatever. We definitely need to change how society sees people with disabilities. We want the same thing as people without disabilities: love, relationships, a career, a purpose. That’s really what I want to show people. That you can do what you set out to do and that, even though we’re all different, we’re also the same.
“More than anything, I want my art and my writing and singing and just everything I do to bring people together, help people open their eyes and hearts and love each other,” she says. “Everyone has something to bring to the table. I want to help people see that.”
For her part, Shakeyla believes the world would be better if people weren’t so quick to judge others.
“I’m big on not judging people or making assumptions about them without getting to know them,” she says. “I’m not a saint. I make mistakes. I get cranky just like everyone else. So maybe if someone snaps at me she’s just having a bad day. Everybody has good in them. Just look for it.”
Life, according to Shakeyla, is too short to waste on being angry or frustrated or feeling sorry for yourself. She’s more interested in making friends, making art, and making a difference.
“You hear people talk about folks with disabilities leading a ‘normal life,’ says Lonnie Walls. “Shakeyla didn’t settle for that. She’s living a victorious life and she’s showing other people they can do it too.”
Shakeyla just sees it as making the most out of the life she’s been given. After all, remember, she wasn’t even expected to survive.
“There’s a lot I want to do still,” she says. “I’d like to get married someday. Write another book. Keep painting. I love to dance. I want to meet people and go places and tell more kids to be kind and to ignore the negative talk and love themselves. I have a lot of dreams. And I’m going to go get them. You should too. What’s stopping you?”