Fly fishing, painting brings disabled veteran from MC to Scotland

Fly fishing, painting brings disabled veteran Jessica Callihan from Maryville College to Scotland

Oct. 31, 2014

Maryville College Senior Jessica Callihan discovered her passion for art during some of the most trying times of her life.

A Navy veteran who lives with disabilities from when she fell from a helicopter during a training exercise, she was in the hospital when she first picked up a set of chalk pastels and focused her talents on a subject which had long fascinated her: fly fishing.

Having grown up on a dairy farm in Southern Michigan, Callihan was used to a robust, outdoor lifestyle and felt trapped in the hospital throughout her 10 surgeries. Her husband, Josh, a Maryville native whom she met in the Navy, went out and bought her the pastels.

"I couldn't go outside; I couldn't do anything," she said. "I felt useless, and being someone who was so active and had so many goals before, I didn't know what to do with myself."

Once she'd finished her first piece she was hooked. Her husband, who had been injured as well and who was medically retired from the Navy, nudged her towards pursuing an art degree after the couple moved to the Maryville area for its quality of life.

Having already completed several credits at Western Michigan University prior to joining the military, Callihan was looking for a small campus that would be transfer- and veteran-friendly.

"I had already been to a large public school, and at Maryville College I was instantly introduced to the faculty and staff. They had no problem answering all of my questions," she said.

Finding a mentor

One of the people Callihan spoke with early on was Dr. Carl Gombert, a professor of art.

"Jessica sets a very high standard for herself," said Gombert, who is now Callihan's advisor. "She's not afraid to put her work out there, and she's actively seeking opportunities. Her persistence and commitment to high standards are both truly admirable."

When Gombert first met Callihan, he immediately recognized her talents and the life experience she brought with her as a non-traditional student.

"She's been through enough where many other folks faced with those obstacles would have changed course or given up," he said. "My colleagues and I admire Jessica."

Gombert said accepting Callihan's transfer credits and prior work experience was a priority because she came to the College with a level of maturity and a good idea about what she wanted to do. That has paid off, he pointed out.

"She's made significant strides towards greater mastery," Gombert said. "Jessica's goals have been very much aligned with perfecting her craft. She's a realist. She's interested in rendering things like the reflection of sunshine in water. She'll render fish in water where the light strikes the surface but you can also see into the water."

Fly fishing as therapy

Callihan's injury was a complicated one, but the aspect of it which made her suffer the most was complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).

"I started feeling this intense burning pain, and I had no idea what it was," she said. "I couldn't go outside because I couldn't stand the wind against my knee. I couldn't stand any type of sensations on my leg."

The treatment she received came in the form of a neurostimulator implanted in her spinal cord to intercept and lessen pain signals.

Callihan and her husband also joined a program called Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. It organizes fly fishing trips for disabled veterans, helping them to participate in the sport.

They went to a tournament in Mossy Creek, Va., shortly after her neurostimulator surgery.

"I'd just gotten cleared for a five pound weight limit the day before, and I held two fish that were over five pounds," Callihan said. "It was such a victory for me. I knew that I still could be competitive and that I could still be outside doing what I loved to do."

Studying abroad in Scotland

This past summer, Callihan studied at the University of Stirling, Scotland, with help from the Gilman International Scholarship Program and the Maryville College Tuck International Study Award.

There she took two classes, The Psychology of Art with a  Tartan Twist and Photographing the Urban.

"It was a blast," Callihan said. "I'm actually still friends with the professor, and she wants me to showcase some of my work in Scotland. I'm trying to build up a body of work to do that."

While in Scotland, Callihan had opportunities to fish in idyllic mountain lochs and pursue her artwork. But working up the courage to go wasn't easy, she said.

"I'd never been on a plane that long. I'd never been away from my doctors that long with my injuries, and I didn't know what to expect."

As it turned out, the trip was just one more way for Callihan, who'd struggled through adversity, to make the most of her life.

By Gerhard Schneibel, News and New Media Writer


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2017 semester is 1,181.