How many times have you read a story about someone who's had a singular passion for art for as long as he can remember?
The story of Olympia's Jeff Freels is yet another one of those - except Freels' passion had to carry him through more than some lean years and a discouraging teacher.
Freels is legally blind - but that hasn't stopped him from working as a cartoonist, illustrator and designer of role-playing games.
"I've been drawing since I could hold a pencil," says Freels, who drew the cover of the Volcano's Best of Olympia issue this year and was named Best Blind Artist. "That's how I process. That's what I do."
Twelve years ago, in his early 30s, Freels lost most of his eyesight, a complication of the Type I diabetes he's had since age 5.
Sitting across a table from me at Barnes & Noble this week, Freels could dimly make out the shape of my shoulders, but not my head, because my light skin and hair blended into the background behind me. He walks with a cane.
"If you wrapped your head in cheesecloth and then closed one eye, you might be able to see kind of what I see," he says.
So how can he create such intricately detailed illustrations?
"I had to start learning how to draw again," he says of losing much of his sight. And there was no question in his mind that he could and would.
He uses a jeweler's loupe or a pair of glasses with a thick magnifying lens screwed on - and then he works about an inch from his computer screen.
"It takes me a long time to do the fine-tuning and clean up the lines to make sure they match," Freels says. "I have to physically move my head from one side of the page to the other, so I can't draw straight lines anymore because they don't connect.
"Actually, I've gotten better because I have to work so hard."
And Freels is working that hard because drawing means - and has always meant - that much to him.
"Drawing is how I center myself," he says. "If I can draw a picture, everything makes sense. ... I've always drawn - just a quick illustration of what I was talking about if I couldn't find the words."
Not that he's at a loss for those. He spent six years at The Evergreen State College, where he earned a bachelor's degree followed by a master's in teaching in 1993. He's volunteered at the college ever since, at first organizing events and doing whatever was needed and now drawing posters, flyers and anything else.
"I still try to help out the way that I can," he says.
Freels is in a place where he now needs help, too. His wife, Raquel Salinas has been on dialysis for seven years since she lost her kidney function, as a result, Freels says, of a prescription medication. Now Freels also needs dialysis as a result of his diabetes.
Transplants are expensive, even with health insurance. So he's putting all proceeds from sales of art, role-playing games, T-shirts, etc., into the JeffWerx Transplant Fund, which also accepts donations through Freels' website (jeffwerx.com).
"The support from the gaming community is really amazing," he says. "People who don't even know me see my illustrations, and they donate."