After losing her fingers, Montana artist returns to painting

In this Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, photo, elementary art school teacher Joey Kiernan poses for a picture in front of one of her paintings hanging in her home in Billings, Mont.

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A decade has passed since elementary art school teacher Joey Kiernan lost her fingers and toes in a tragic incident. A teacher at Woodward Academy in Atlanta, the educator was preparing to return to the classroom after summer break, but she was plagued with pain by a kidney stone too large to pass.

What transpired next would leave Kiernan forever changed, as her body went into septic shock, impacting all her vital organs and prompting a 12-day coma. Upon waking, doctors told her they needed to amputate below the knee and above the elbow on her left side.

“They give you a lot of drugs before they give you bad news,” Kiernan said, able to look back at that time and laugh. “You go, ‘Oh well, it’s OK.’ ”

Doctors ended up saving Kiernan’s arm and leg, but amputated her fingers on her left hand and several fingertips on her right, as well as her toes.

“Not to diminish how life changing it is to lose fingers and toes like this, but it is much better than the amputation that I originally thought it was going to be,” she told the Billings Gazette.

Artful life

Kiernan was born an artist. A longtime resident of Montana, she relocated 10 years ago and recently returned to Billings. While living in Atlanta, she began teaching second and third graders art, and became well-versed in many art forms. She was also a painter, working with acrylics and watercolor. In addition, she created large-scale mosaics, threw and fired clay, and was into printmaking. Prior to the hospitalization, her art business was thriving, and her teaching life was incredibly fulfilling.

A decade later, Kiernan’s recovery has surpassed what doctors felt was possible.

“I am more than just the sum total of my body parts. I am a person who has a life, and I am going to get back to that life, come hell or high water.”

Kiernan’s road back to health was paved with perseverance, setbacks, and a tough detox from pain medication. “Nobody ever thought I would be anything but an invalid for the rest of my life. They didn’t see how I could come back.”

“It’s not just the amputation,” Kiernan said. “Septic shock just has a profound effect on your general health. But I would not settle for the ‘I’m just going to stay home and be an invalid.’ ”

After that first month, she began to see real progress and returned to work just before Christmas break.

“If I’m being totally honest, I had no business going back to work,” said Kiernan, who credited her wife and children with being incredibly supportive. Her friends and teaching cohorts were also uplifting, helping her set up the classroom and return to work teaching second and third grade.

“Art saved me through all of that,” Kiernan described, who started painting again about four months into her recovery. “I would sit in front of the canvas, my hands all bandaged up. I was so afraid I lost my abilities. One day, I just said. ‘I’m going to do this, and I don’t care if it’s horrible. I’m going to paint today.’” To her surprise, the painting turned out well.

“Art is such a vehicle to self-awareness. Once I was able to start painting again or doing any kind of art, I knew I was going to be OK.”

Kiernan has long been an advocate for art therapy and studied it in college. Raised in Billings, she attended Montana State University Billings and went to work in special education, as well as working for STEP, an organization that supports families of children with disabilities, where she met her wife, Linda Loff. Together for 20 years, they were finally married in 2014.

Kiernan raised her two children in Billings, but once they were out of the nest, the couple relocated to Georgia. Last year, they returned to Billings to be closer to family and their first grandson.

Kiernan did not regain her full physical stamina and continues to suffer from nerve pain that can often bring her to her knees. “The end of any amputation is very sensitive,” she said. “You just have nerve pain your whole life. Every day all day.” She was offered medications to help manage pain, but chose a different route. She describes coming off pain pills as the hardest part of her recovery.

“The amputations were a piece of cake compared to getting off that medication. It’s hard to explain how hard that addiction was. I needed those pain pills for the amputation, but boy do you get addicted quick.”

Among the techniques for managing pain and keeping positive, art remains at the top of Kiernan’s list. “Art can do so many wonderful things for people. It’s so therapeutic, whether you have issues or not, making art can soothe your soul and encourage you.”

Though the kinds of art Kiernan can do has been reduced, she continues to paint and recently unveiled a series of works for the extended August ArtWalk at the Downtown Billings Alliance.

Works range from clay pots to landscapes, but Kiernan’s favorite subject is florals. Her current art show is a hodgepodge of styles and displays a wide range of colorful emotions. “I think I have multiple personalities,” she said. “You would never know just looking at it that it’s all the same artist, other than I do use a lot of color.”

Though Kiernan has been advised to give her art some more western appeal, she’s not interested in painting for popular demand. “I don’t want to make art that pleases someone else, I want to make art that pleases me.”

While teaching, Kiernan had a philosophy of incorporating art into the entire curriculum. “It was in intrinsic part of the lesson plan, learning about yourself and learning about others. You can’t accept others if you don’t know and accept yourself.” Through art, many of these ideas became part of the learning process.

Now retired, Kiernan has focused on settling back into Billings and continuing to pursue her art. Her family and her artistic pursuits have provided the ideal motivation to heal and move past her injuries.

“I am a dreamer,” Kiernan said. “I have a vision for the art I want to do and the life I want to have. I just pointed myself in that direction and would not be deterred by anybody, really.”

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