Artist Jesse Rising Crow McKinney and his girlfriend, Laura Antranigian, are no strangers to overcoming struggle.
The pair, both painters with severe cerebral palsy, are raising money to achieve their latest dream: to live and work together in Portland, Maine.
“When you truly love someone, like I love my Laura, you need to be with that person to make life complete,” McKinney said. “As a man with Cherokee roots, I believe that the creator, or ‘spirit,’ brought us together. Love is what life is about.”
McKinney, 45, said he is the first person with severe cerebral palsy to graduate from Penn State. He completed a bachelor’s degree in horticulture in 1993. Since then, he continued to achieve — winning the Novice Class at the NPC Wheelchair National Bodybuilding Championships in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 2001 and then the Lightweight Division at the same competition in 2005.
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“This is the highest amateur wheelchair bodybuilding competition in the world,” McKinney said. “Arnold Schwarzenegger even wrote me a letter because I was the first person with cerebral palsy to ever win.”
He also became a father, wrote a book and devised a way to pursue painting.
“My parents are both artists, so I guess it just came naturally,” he said. “My mom was an art teacher in Somers Point in New Jersey for years and my dad is a kind of Leonardo DaVinci. He can make, build, paint and invent all kinds of stuff. However, I just love to paint and invented baseball caps with paintbrushes attached to the bills that allow me to paint with my head because I lack the motor control to paint with my hands.”
Using acrylic on canvas, McKinney focuses mainly on landscapes or flowers and sells his work at his own gallery, Rising Crow Gallery Inc., in Williamsport, where he lives. But after meeting the woman he calls his soul mate, he is working to change his address.
Since his divorce 10 years ago, McKinney dated on and off but didn’t find the right fit in a partner until March, when he met Antranigian, also a painter with cerebral palsy. Antranigian, 48, introduced herself through a message on a disability dating website.
“It didn’t take us long to fall in love,” McKinney said. “We truly are soul mates.”
They used Skype to communicate for hours, and they visited each other in May.
“It was like meeting the part of me that was missing all of my life,” McKinney said. “I fell in love with the amazing woman she is right away. We connect on a really deep level.”
Antranigian, of Portland, said she knew right away that there was something special about McKinney.
“I saw his profile and I just knew I had to write to him,” she said. “When we started talking over Skype, I just knew he was the one for me. He had the kindest eyes I’d ever seen. And his smile just lit up my life. I can’t imagine my life without him.”
The two said they knew they wanted to be together, but McKinney would have to live in Maine for 30 days before he qualified for services. They have set a goal to raise $3,500 to allow for McKinney’s move and a month of living expenses, and they hope to be living under the same roof and selling paintings together this December.
McKinney said they have raised more than half of their goal, including donations outside of the crowdfunding site where they shared their story.. The fundraiser is open through July 31.
Antranigian said she is encouraged by their progress and feels blessed to have McKinney in her life.
“It would be like my life-long dream coming true — my dream that I thought would never come true,” she said. “I was prepared to spend my life alone because I never thought I would meet someone as sweet and caring as Jesse.”