The summer she turned 13, Amber Carraway spent the afternoons on her family’s farm in Hinds County the way she always had: running through the fields, coming up with games to play and being as active as she could possibly be. Shortly after autumn began, though, she frequently found herself feeling weak and short of breath while playing. Soon, exposure to any kind of light began to feel the same to her as if she had just stepped out of a dark room into intense sunlight, and loud sounds became excruciating to her ears.
As her symptoms intensified, Carraway’s parents brought her to a few hospitals, where doctors diagnosed her with neurological lyme disease, a condition that stems from a bacterial infection in the central nervous system. Despite physicians’ best efforts to treat her, Carraway’s condition worsened, and complete paralysis of her legs set in, leaving her confined to a wheelchair.
For the next year, whenever she was not undergoing treatment, Carraway was forced to spend her days in her bedroom with shades blocking out most sunlight, and she used softer lights at night so that her light sensitivity did not bother her so much.
Unable to run around the farm as she ordinarily would, Carraway instead turned her attention to the art supplies her parents had brought her, starting with color pencils. Though she had never considered it before, that day Carraway picked up a pencil and decided to try sketching something.
“On a whim I started drawing things that were close to me, like the stuffed animals I kept on my bed,” Carraway says. “When the light outside was lower I’d draw things I could see outside my window, like hummingbirds flying by or our dog running through the fields. After I got more comfortable with drawing, I moved on to doing portraits of my family and quickly found that to be one of my favorite subjects.”
Even as she gradually recovered from lyme disease over the following year and regained her ability to walk and venture outside, Carraway continued to pursue her newfound passion for art. The farmland around her home became the perfect setting for practicing landscapes, and she moved on from creating portraits of just her parents to her friends, her grandparents and other relatives who came to visit as well.
When she was 14, Carraway’s mother gifted her a set of paints and brushes, which she quickly embraced after discovering the applications they had for improving her landscape drawings, feeling that painting was a natural progression from sketching. Using both watercolors and oil paints, she would frequently get paint on the living-room floor when she first started, Carraway says, but her mother was pleased to see both her enthusiasm for art and her improving health.
Carraway entered one of her first art shows when she was 15 that took place as part of the annual Tomato Festival in Crystal Springs, Miss. For the competition, she submitted a portrait of herself holding a basket of tomatoes in her home garden.
“I remember how nervous I felt walking up to the submission area after the judging because it was the first time I’d ever shown any of my work publicly,” Carraway says. “When I got there I thought I hadn’t won anything because there wasn’t a ribbon on my painting. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by people congratulating me on coming in first place, and it turned out that the wind had blown the first-place ribbon I’d won off the canvas and somewhere out of sight.”
Buoyed on the success of her first art competition, Carraway began painting professionally and accepting her first commissions later that year. She mostly started with paintings of various people’s loved ones, with her main goal being to create paintings that told stories.
One of her earlier works, titled “Tomatoes to the Rescue,” depicts Carraway’s younger brother sitting inside a washtub filled with tomato juice, holding his nose while a skunk walks off into the distance. While her brother never actually ran afoul of a skunk, the scene represents an occurrence that happens all too often in the countryside where she grew up, Carraway says, and could easily have happened to anyone she knew.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated the southern coast of the United States in 2005, Carraway created a work titled “Reach Out” as a show of support to the people whose lives the storm affected. The painting features a hand clad in battered sleeves reaching up toward another hand that Carraway says represents the hand of God. At the base of the painting is a stop sign topped with a road sign reading “Katrina,” representing Carraway’s hope for the turmoil surrounding the aftermath of the storm to end.
Soon afterward, Carraway painted what she considers to be one of her favorite works as part of the national Veterans of Foreign Wars Art Competition. The painting, titled “Forever in Her Heart,” is a self portrait in which Carraway holds a folded flag in the manner that relatives of military members lost in service, with the face of a soldier looking down from the sky in the background. The painting represents “Faith, Family and Country,” Carraway says, which she believes to be some of the most important aspects of a person’s life.
After the painting both placed first in the competition and made the cover of VFW’s magazine, Carraway received letters from relatives of servicemen across the country thanking her for honoring their loved ones’ sacrifices and telling her how the painting had touched their hearts.
Today, Carraway lives in Flowood, Miss., and works for The Mustard Seed, a Flowood-based nonprofit that supports adults with developmental disabilities. She teaches courses on painting and ceramics and helps the local “Seedsters” craft ornaments, mugs, vases and more. Her mother is also employed at The Mustard Seed, allowing them to work together to further the nonprofit’s community-oriented goals.
Carraway additionally creates illustrations for books, including a children’s book titled “Rufus” by her brother David Ward Carraway and a romance novel titled “The Book of Betsy” by Robert Hitt Neill.
“To this day I still consider portraits of people to be my favorite subject despite it also being one of the most challenging,” Carraway says. “I love the challenge inherent in trying to capture a person’s expression and tell the story of their life on a canvas. From their eyes to their proportions, there’s so much that goes into trying to reflect a person’s face, but that challenge just makes it all the more rewarding.”
For more information on Amber Carraway and her art, visit ambercarraway.com.