Meet Letisha Wexstten: Artist, UMSL student and advocate for others

UMSL student Letisha Wexstten

Being born without arms hasn’t kept graphic design major Letisha Wexstten from leading an independent life filled with creativity, laughter and accomplishment. (Photo by August Jennewein)

As the oldest of five siblings, Letisha Wexstten remembers helping out around the house quite a bit growing up.

“Lots of diaper changes and bottle feedings,” she says with a grin.

Because she was born without arms, that might seem surprising. But Wexstten, who is now a student at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, made it work.

“When I was a baby, my parents were very supportive of me being independent, and that really kickstarted my personality of being OK with not having arms, accepting myself for who I am and accepting others for who they are,” she says. “There were no support groups for amputee babies, and so it was kind of trial and error.”

One idea involved a jar of beans.

“My mom – a genius – would sit me in the kitchen, and I would dump the beans out of the jar and then pick them up individually with my toes and put them back in the jar to hear the clinking sound,” Wexstten says. “That really helped with dexterity in my toes.”

Before long she was getting dressed by herself. Learning to complete such tasks – and being pushed to do so as a young child – was often difficult, but gaining those skills early on made a big difference.

“I figured it out,” Wexstten recalls. “And that’s just how my life has been ever since then. I drive a car, I paint and I’m an artist. I use a normal computer setup – I don’t have any extra adaptations or voice-activated stuff. It’s almost faster for me to use my feet, because my feet are my hands.”

My Donut Day by Letisha Wexstten

“My Donut Day” is an illustrated map of one Saturday when Letisha Wexstten was finishing up a bookbinding project for a course she took last semester with UMSL’s Jennifer McKnight. The journey begins with a trip to Office Depot, where an employee’s makeshift tape-it-together-and-make-a-photocopy plan for turning Wexsstten’s spreads into a book just wasn’t going to cut it. “I said, ‘No, you can’t do that – because even if it’s off a quarter of an inch, Jen will know.’ And so I decided I’d go somewhere else. And then I thought, ‘You know what, I need a treat. I need doughnuts. I’ll go get doughnuts.’ So I go to the shop and I ask for some doughnuts, but they put them in a very small box and also decided to tape the box shut.’” Click on the image for a closer view of Wexsstten’s humorous depiction of the day, which eventually began to improve – and concluded with both successfully bound books and the consuming of doughnuts. (Design by Letisha Wexstten)

In recent months she’s been tackling still other challenges – and taking it all in stride – as she adjusts to being a student at UMSL, where she transferred in as a studio art major last fall.

“UMSL is a big campus,” explains Wexstten, who is dealing with a deteriorating hip. “It’s very, very large compared to Meramec, where I could walk from the far end of the parking lot to my classroom and not break a sweat.”

On top of adapting to the university’s sheer size last semester, she came across what she describes as “small flaws” in accessibility that could sometimes be quite frustrating as she made her way to class. For example, one day an accessible door to the Millennium Student Center wasn’t so accessible.

“Someone had put a trashcan in front of the button you press to open the door,” Wexstten says. “It’s easier to mope about it than to actually point it out to someone who can get it addressed.”

But then she did point it out. In fact, she took some pictures of the door and a few other issues, and she shared them with Chancellor Tom George.

“I just said, ‘Here are some things that don’t require lots of money to fix but would really help,’” Wexstten says. “And they actually changed some things.”

Now when she arrives on campus after a 45-minute drive along Interstate 55, she’s able to focus more of her energy where she really wants it: on becoming a professional graphic designer.

It’s a career path that she first began moving toward in sixth grade while living in Jordan.

“My dad is Palestinian, and his family is all over there, and my parents decided that we wanted to move there,” Wexstten explains. “Originally we were supposed to stay there, but it was very hard for me, coming from America where I was pretty much independent and having the opportunities to do whatever I wanted to do.

“And my parents saw that. They saw that within the first couple months of being there.”

As she struggled to learn Arabic and understand what her teachers were saying in class, she started spending time sketching cartoons.

“I showed them to my dad, and he thought they were really good and bought me my first sketchbook,” says Wexstten, 30. “And I just filled it up. That’s about when my parents were like, ‘OK, she could actually do something with this, and it would be better if she did this in America.’”

Though she’s already been doing freelance graphic design for several years, Wexstten is eager these days to earn her bachelor’s degree in the field. That will open up new opportunities. Along the way, she’s learning lots from professors in the Department of Art and Art History – including Jennifer McKnight.

“I’ve only had her for one class so far, and she’s just amazing. She’s awesome,” says Wexstten, who graduated from St. Louis Community College–Meramec in 2011 and felt a bit intimidated about diving back into school after the time away. “I was coming in and there was all this terminology, and I spent a lot of time after class with her, wondering what I missed in the past five years.

Letisha Wexstten at work

Letisha Wexstten is in her second semester at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

“I’m not afraid to ask questions and say, ‘Hey, what are you talking about?’ But I also don’t want to hold up the class if everyone else knows what she’s talking about.”

Wexstten isn’t afraid of answering questions, either. She points to an experience in elementary school as part of the reason for that openness.

Her family moved around a lot when she was young, and, like many children, Wexstten remembers encountering a roomful of new peers more than once. But fifth grade especially stands out – because instead of just being introduced in front of a couple dozen classmates, the teachers decided to have an assembly.

“I was like, ‘OK, how far are we going to go with this?’” Wexstten recalls. “And then more teachers heard about it, and they’re like, ‘Well, this would also be a good learning experience for the second graders.’ Before I knew it the whole cafeteria was full of kids.”

While she definitely felt somewhat put on display, she views it as a good experience looking back. She remembers feeling pleased with how people responded – and pretty comfortable talking about her life and who she was.

“The kids were amazed and asked questions and learned, and they felt more comfortable with me,” Wexstten says. “And instead of saying ‘Well, I don’t know if I like her, because she doesn’t have arms,’ it was, ‘This girl’s cool.’ And so that really helped.”

As an adult she’s welcomed a variety of speaking engagements, from addressing hundreds of high school students to speaking in front of a camera – and she even has her own YouTube channel, where many of the videos have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

But taking her story online wasn’t something she did lightly.

“What had happened was that a lot of my friends are amputees, and my husband is an amputee, and we’re all real open about our lives and have a really weird sense of humor – it’s just a real interesting atmosphere,” Wexstten says. “And because we do all these weird and interesting things, they were like, ‘Tish, you have to videotape some of it. You have to.’

“And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want people to make fun of me. The internet is so mean. I don’t know if I can handle someone making a comment about me not having arms or saying that’s gross or something.’”

After giving it some thought, she decided to make one video – showing her making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with her feet.

On the night she uploaded it, back in 2012, it got just a couple of views, but by the next night there were 20, then 200, then 500 and so on. After about two weeks, “Tosh.O” called.

Bloom, a font by Letisha Wexstten

One of Letisha Wexstten’s recent assignments involved creating her own font. “Mine’s called Bloom,” she says. “I bought flowers from the dollar store, and then I cut the stems off and arranged them in the shape of a letter, and then I took a photo of it. So I did that to all the letters. And then I actually borrowed my neighbor’s grass. I knocked on his door and I said ‘I love your grass. It’s really green. May I take a photo of it?’” (Design by Letisha Wexstten)

“The producer said, ‘We loved your video – we want you on the show,’” Wexstten recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know. I have to think about it, because you make fun of people.’ And they were like, ‘No no no. You don’t understand – we loved your video. We’re not going to make fun of you. Just come out.’”

In the end she gave it a go and became the show’s first “cewebrity,” which is now a recurring segment.

“We had a blast,” she says of the trip to California. “For the segment they set me up at Subway – because I made that sandwich in my video – and Daniel Tosh comes in and says, ‘Tish, I think we need to get you off your feet.’

“And then he takes me to a spa – it was a fake spa still in their warehouse – and he had a coupon for a mani-pedi. He got the mani, I got the pedi. Then he interviewed me and we did our own cooking show. And he had these really weird, like, camping or running shoes that were toe socks, and they were made out of plastic, so they weren’t really functional for using your feet. But he was using his feet trying to crack an egg, and he was making a mess and so I was like, ‘Here, let me help you.’”

Though it’s been about five years since the segment aired, Wexstten still gets strangers coming up to her saying she looks familiar and asking if she was on the show.

“It was a good experience, and because of that, my YouTube really skyrocketed,” she says.

These days it’s other projects that are taking priority for Wexstten – things like coming up with new fonts and keeping up on all sorts of class projects, as well as getting more involved on UMSL’s campus as a whole.

Asked how she keeps everything in perspective and stays motivated as she lives the vibrant life that she does, she says it’s pretty simple.

“I just figure it is what it is,” Wexstten says. “My mom trusts in God, and she says he made me this way for a reason and don’t ever question that, just go with it – and I’m like, ‘All right, it works.’

“I’d rather work hard and accomplish something than sit around and feel sorry for myself. Which a lot of people do, but then they see me and say, ‘Well shoot, you don’t have arms, and here you are working to become a graphic designer, and you paint and you drive and you do this and that, and here I am complaining about a hangnail.’”

The UMSL Experience

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