A Beautiful Life: Cliff and Brenda Potts
For Cliff Potts, life never revolved around what he had lost. It centered around what he could create. His determination, faith, and remarkable talent led to a colorful career as an artist, inspiring countless people along the way. Accompanying Cliff on his remarkable journey for the past four decades, his wife Brenda Potts opened her home to share some of her late husband’s artwork and memories about his life.
“Cliff grew up on a ranch ten miles outside of Custer, Montana,” Brenda begins. “He was a very active child. He had a great childhood.” Cliff worked hard on the ranch, carrying out his share of the considerable duties with eagerness and good spirit. He enjoyed whittling small toys for his younger siblings, as well as playing the organ and piano, early signs of his developing creative talent. “His mom was always hosting someone for a meal, if not family and friends, then the ranch hands. Cliff stayed in the bunk house with the hired hands…many interesting stories from those years,” Brenda adds.
At age 15, tragedy struck. Cliff contracted polio.
“He first noticed when he bent over to put on his boots one morning,” says Brenda. “He said he had excruciating pain in his neck and back. By the next day, he could not move and soon after could not breath on his own, and was put in an iron lung at St. Vincent.” The lives of Cliff and his family were forever changed in dramatic fashion. Although his father and sister had their own bouts with polio, they recovered without impairment. Cliff was not so lucky. He lost the use of his arms and legs, becoming a quadriplegic. The once active young man found himself wheelchair bound. Yet, the devastating illness would not curb Cliff’s spirit. While in a rehabilitation hospital in Omaha, his occupational therapist introduced him to a new, creative outlet: art.
“I think he always had that part of his brain developed because of his interest in building, music and carving,” explains Brenda. “He started painting to re-discover his self worth after having spent so many hours in an iron lung, unable to do much more than breathe.” Cliff learned to utilize his mouth in place of his hands to manipulate artistic tools.
Beginning as a therapeutic and invigorating hobby, art soon became a more serious endeavor for Cliff. A CNA bought one of his first paintings, quickly demonstrating Cliff’s burgeoning talent. He earned a BS in Art and a Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling from Eastern Montana College,
“He started seriously selling his art in the 80’s, after he was not able to work as a rehab counselor at Rimrock Foundation any longer,” recalls Brenda. “Many people remember us at the Rimrock mall. Cliff was there every December from the first week through Christmas eve. He loved painting for people and visiting people.”
Cliff and Brenda met in 1980, when Cliff was a patient at St. Vincent’s where Brenda worked as a Registered Nurse. The couple lived in Billings for their entire marriage, raising four children together. They have 6 grandchildren.
Over time, Cliff developed a new, innovative method for manipulating this own left arm to sketch and paint. A tongue controlled, electric “Golden Arm” allowed him to implement his skills with precision and finesse. For some, his abilities seemed beyond belief.
“Once a young boy, about 12, accused Cliff of faking being in the chair to bring attention to himself in order to sell art. I guess he could not believe Cliff could paint and draw that well with a broken body. His electric arm was the way he could move his arm to paint, but his brain held so much knowledge.”
Cliff’s artwork, from vibrant, rural paintings to elegant pen and inks, have brought joy to many throughout the years, encompassing a life of inspiring hope, passion, and vision; a tradition his wife, Brenda, wishes to carry on by continuing to share Cliff’s work with the world.