LIFE; PARALYZED EXHIBIT
I’m happy to report that my recent exhibit opening was a big success. This particular exhibit is my third art exhibit and second solo show. The exhibit is at Kean University, in their Student Art Gallery. The gallery is located in Vaughn-Eames, which is the art building. Vaughn-Eames has two art galleries on the first floor, as well as a small theater. The opening reception was held in the Vaughn-Eames building lobby, from two to five p.m., Sunday, September 13, 2009. The exhibit will be available for viewing until October, 2, 2009. If you have friends or family that live in the area, please tell about the show.
I am a Kean University alumnus; haven graduated in 2003 with a B.A. in Fine Art (K-12 teaching certification). I had begun taking graduate courses in painting in 2004, in addition to working full time as an art teacher. I didn’t “pick up” a paintbrush again until late 2005, due to my accident and resulting spinal cord injury. I began painting by mouth about six months post accident. Painting gave me back a sense of independence, as there is very little, to nothing that I can do myself, without assistance. Being able to paint again also gave me an escape (mentally), that I desperately needed, during the first year and a half after my injury. I would consider the first two years post accident the darkest days of my life, especially because I living in a nursing home. At first, I was solely interested in building up my skills and trying to hone my technique using my mouth. I painted mostly still life paintings during that period. It was also during that time that I applied to join the Association for Mouth and Foot Painters.
By the time I moved back into my own apartment in January, 2007, I felt pretty confident in my painting abilities. At that point I felt that I was at about the same skill level I had been prior to my accident. That said, painting is like any skill; it requires constant practice and there is always room for improvement. It was around this time that I began painting more personal artwork. Many of the first paintings I did were meant to go to the AMFPA, so I tried to paint things that would be most appropriate for greeting cards and calendars. My personal work is based on ideas I’ve been storing in my mind since my accident.
I hadn’t felt emotionally prepared to really delve into my feeling related to the accident until I was in my home. During that same year that I moved, a committee of my friends and family members were working on raising funds for me, for a modified van. The committee contacted local papers about my story, in hopes of raising more funds for the van. It was through my interviews with the newspaper journalists that I got my first chance to spread the message about spinal cord injuries and research. It felt great knowing that a large group of people would have access to my story and I would be able to educate people about paralysis. I began receiving feedback immediately, and was very touched that people appreciated me sharing my story.
Since then, I’ve made it my mission to advocate for a cure to paralysis. Early on, after my accident, I had created a website dedicated to advocacy, but I still wished I could do more. Although I was feeling good about my painting skills, I was still apprehensive to share my artwork. I’m a very self conscious person by nature, so at first I wasn’t overly thrilled about having my story (worst yet, my picture) plastered all over New Jersey. However, so many people were working hard to improve my situation that declining the invitations to do the interviews was never an option, in my mind. After the first couple of articles ran I received so much positive feedback that it gave me the courage to try and find other ways I could use my accident to help others. I received dozens of letters and cards of appreciation and I thought, “I’ve been given an opportunity to speak, not only for myself, but all these other people that are struggling just like me. If I’m given a chance to talk about my accident or share my work I better do it, otherwise it’d be an insult to all these people that don’t have a voice.”Thanks to the publicity for the fundraiser I was able to meet other advocates and people that worked for various art and/or disability related organizations. It wasn’t until after the fundraiser that I started thinking that I might actually be able to publicly exhibit my work. I worked hard to try and build up enough paintings to have a small body of work, which I could show. I never lacked ideas. My accident had provided me with enough things to paint about for a lifetime. I just needed time to create a decent amount of work, while still fulfilling my obligations to the AMFPA. I decided to only exhibit my personal work, because I felt it was a way for people to understand paralysis in a way my words alone could not express. My still lives help me improve my technical skills, while my personal works give me an outlet to deal with all that I’ve been through. I wasn’t interested in selling (nor am I now) my paintings. I just wanted to exhibit them; for people to see them. I know when I first started working on my paintings my family and friends were a bit shocked or disturbed by the images. I remember my dad joking with me, “How about painting another one of those nice flower paintings?” I would joke back saying, “Dad no one is going to care about a cure if I portray my life as rainbows and butterflies.” I want people to see the reality of my situation. I’m guessing those closest to me feel the pain I put into my work a bit more acutely than a stranger, but even still, my dad and the rest of my inner circle understand my need to paint and are very supportive. I often wonder if I put on such a good act that people don’t realize what I’m really going through, until they see my work and that’s why it knocks them off their guard.
What’s important to me is that people can make a connection to my paintings. I’ve been fortunate so far, in that galleries have been willing to display my work. I plan to keep painting and hope I can continue to exhibit. I truly believe that if people make an emotional connection with something and/or are more informed about something, that the chances of them supporting that cause drastically increases. My current exhibit is so special to me because of my connection to the University. I spent so many hours of my life on campus (the majority in the VE art building), between classes, work and clubs, that Kean feels like a second home in a way. When I was an undergraduate I worked as a freshman advisor for three years. I got to know a wide variety of staff and faculty that I might have never met, if I hadn’t worked on campus. I consider many of my old coworkers and professors my friends and I remain in connect with them. It means a lot to me to be able to exhibit at my alma mater.
This show has given me the opportunity to share my story with thousands of students. Every incoming freshman will be given a flyer with information about my show and about spinal cord injuries. More importantly, they will learn about the bigger picture of paralysis and its effects. I’m using my life as an example and it’s my hope that can relate to me and not only support a cure, but to be aware of the choices they make every day and to be thankful for every day they are healthy. As far as spinal cord injuries go, all too many occur during the college age years. I hope my story will show students how fragile our lives really are and that I can help prevent spinal cord injuries in addition to teaching about them.
I’ll never claim to be a great artist; there are many others that are far better and more talented than me. Although, having an exhibit at Kean has definitely helped me to get over some of my insecurities. This is my first show that is not related to any disability related organization. Although I’m grateful to the other organizations I’ve worked with, and support their efforts one hundred percent, this exhibit at Kean has helped me deal with my disability in a way those other organizations couldn’t. It’s given me more confidence in the power of my message. I say this, because all the other organizations work specifically with “disabled artists.” I have a hard time dealing with that label, because it always makes me wonder why people are interested in my work. I don’t want people to take interest in my work because it was painted by a “disabled artist.” I want to be confident that people are interested in my work for the messages behind them. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to tell people I painted them with my mouth, although it is part of my life story. I feel like the work should be considered worthy on its own merit, regardless of how I created it. I fear that people might get distracted by the way I paint, instead of focusing on what I paint about. It is an inner struggle and having my first exhibit at a gallery that is open to all artists has been a big emotional boost for me. I think of my personal artwork as a tiny glimpse into my mind. It is my hope that when people look at my work they can feel what I feel, even if only for a moment. A moment in my shoes is more than enough time for anyone to realize the importance and immediacy of finding a cure for paralysis.
*Kean's Cougar's Byte review:
*My website: www.myspace.com/sci_cure
*Link to the exhibit flyer: