As she spent her days in bed, too tired to leave, the turtles, penguins and butterflies riding exotic birds visited Railey Warren.
She was only 10 years old, but Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome was making Railey a prisoner to bed. Her imagination – and especially her art – were her escape.
The creatures that visited her imagination came to her from the ocean, from her Family’s time in Hawaii. The hummingbirds that she found all around her in Tennessee.
“My inspiration is mainly nature, just any form of like sitting outside,” Railey said. “Butterflies, hummingbirds, it’s beautiful, so I just want to carry it into my artwork,”
Railey is the daughter of Jennifer Lowers Warren and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Johnny Warren, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
As the child of a Soldier, Railey has lived in many different places including Tulsa, Oklahoma, Hawaii and Augusta, Georgia. The Family came to Fort Campbell because Railey and her sister, Leighton, are both in the Exceptional Family Member Program and the required care for their conditions is close by.
The EFMP is designed to assist active-duty Soldiers with exceptional Family members by providing specialized care and services through nearby military and civilian agencies.
“Only a certain number of places can handle their medical needs and Vanderbilt [Medical Center] happened to be one of them,” Jennifer said. “It’s been amazing for her. I couldn’t pick a better place for her. The community has embraced her and loved her and we’ve only been here three years and they treat us like they’ve known us our whole lives.”
Path to recovery
“It took a long time figuring out what was wrong with her and until that time she just laid in bed,” Jennifer said. “She couldn’t get up. She would faint. Our whole life changed.”
Railey was finally diagnosed with EDS.
“She just doesn’t make collagen properly, and collagen is in your whole body. If affects joints, how blood pumps,” Jennifer said. “Her heart has to work so much harder to pump her blood … so she was always tired. Even when she was resting, it was like she was running a marathon.”
To pass time in bed, Railey got serious about her art.
“I have been doing art for as long as I can remember,” she said. “I only got really serious when I was about 8 or 10.”
That’s when she went to her first chalk event in Georgia.
In chalk, she found a medium she loved. Not because it would last, but because most wouldn’t.
“I think I was so nervous about ruining paper,” Railey said. “Chalk was just so freeing. It was exciting because if I messed up, it just washed away.”
Chalk art is not a passion she keeps to herself.
Railey recently spent two days chalking butterflies and flowers outside Jubilee House in Clarksville while residents of the senior-living community gathered around to watch her work.
The first morning started off tough, because she woke up not feeling well, Jennifer said.
“Even today was hard,” Jennifer said as she watched her daughter move across the sidewalk on her knees and use her fingers to smudge large lines to blend into the concrete canvas. “She had a hard morning but she came and then she started doing it. She gets involved in what she’s doing and it takes her mind off the pain.’
The men and women who stood around watching or lounged in wheelchairs marveled that someone so young could create such intricate art using only shards of chalk and a pool noodle to blend the colors.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one woman, as Railey started a new flower that quickly began to take shape.
A life-like butterfly was the centerpiece, along with a little stick character that a resident drew and Railey decorated to incorporate into her design.
Jennifer said Railey has found mentors, friends and inspiration in Clarksville.
The characters she originally started drawing in bed are now coming to life in huge murals and few who see them would suspect a 15-year-old created them.
All of the money Railey has earned from the art she has sold goes to charities she is passionate about, from feeding the hungry to supporting the arts in Clarksville.
Spreading her wings
Not only has Railey become involved in the Clarksville arts scene, she has signed up for water aerobics classes that also helps with her condition.
The girl once bound to bed, spends time working on wall murals, painting penguins and sea creatures for up to 10 hours a day on occasion. It’s not easy work for anyone, but it is good therapy for her, Jennifer said.
“Art is my escape,” Railey said. “It was the one thing I could do when I was bedbound so it was just wonderful to be able to finally get to do so much more with it – to be getting better.”
Although still passionate about chalk art, Railey also has developed the confidence to create more permanent work.
Today, she does chalk art for shows, has had art showings and created a mural of winds on a building in Historic Downtown Clarksville.
Although she is leaving her mark on the local community, she will soon be returning to Augusta, Georgia. Her father is attending school at Fort Gordon, and upon completion will be reassigned there. So, the Family is once again packing up to start over. They should be settled in there within a month.
For Railey it is not easy to make friends and then leave them. But she knows people in Augusta, Georgia, and knows she can make an impact on the art scene there and make new friends.
“It’s really fun because I get to meet so many amazing people but once I get to know them, I do have to move,” Railey said. “But then I get to make more friends, so I have friends all over the world.”
Railey may have to deal with her illness for the rest of her life, although there is a possibility that she could grow out of it.
She’s not sure yet what she wants to do with her life, but it will include art and doing what she can to help others.
“I want to see what gives me the most joy and what can help me spread art the most, so whether it’s charity or doing more chalk art like this, that’s what I want to do,” Railey said. “I want to help people.”