Art usually isn’t effortless, even if the best of it looks that way. It doesn’t always bubble to the surface when the artist wants. And often it’s bottled up by external forces — discouragement by teachers, the absence of the right tools, a vision that hasn’t quite gelled.
But art will out. Sometimes it takes the right mentor or a good subject or a new technology to find expression, or a spiritual epiphany or just more time. But when art happens, a journey of self-discovery is invariably launched.
In this section, you’ll find art for art’s sake, art for personal revelation, political art, and art that tells our community’s stories and our movement’s history. “All artists speak with their paintbrushes,” says Dan Keplinger. Ultimately, all art speaks our experience.
Painting What He Cannot Say
They call him King Gimp. Sure, he’s a gimp — a wheelchair user with abundant spasticity and a speech impairment — but he’s also a gimp.“For me, it means ‘fighting spirit,'” says the King, a.k.a. Dan Keplinger.
That spirit emerged in all its raw power the day a 16-year-old Keplinger strapped a paintbrush to his head and created his first painting. Suddenly part of the fight was over.
“I could express myself clearly without anybody interpreting for me,” he says. “My soul spoke through my art, and for the first time, the world heard my voice.”
Naturally Keplinger wanted to pursue an art degree in college, but it turns out the fight was only just beginning: After he was admitted to Towson State University in Maryland, two of the teachers wouldn’t even look at him, much less talk to him. Another told him, “You will never be an artist.”
Those teachers are eating their words today. Keplinger never gave up, and ever since a documentary about his life won an Academy Award earlier this year, he has enjoyed his due as an artist, including a solo show at a SoHo gallery and national media coverage. The punchline? Towson has offered him a full scholarship for graduate studies.
Keplinger, 27, does not downplay his lifelong struggle. Born with cerebral palsy that affects him only physically, he spent 10 years in the “special” Ridge School, which mixed kids with mental and physical disabilities. He felt he always had to prove his intelligence, his emotional breadth, his full humanity. “It’s a frustration that never goes away,” he says. “My thoughts race through my mind, slowed to a near standstill when I begin to talk. Maybe I am brilliant. For sure I am an oxymoron.”
He tried computer-based communication devices, but found them unbearably depersonalizing. “There is no way in hell that the emotion of my words can be heard from the technology of today’s computer,” he says. “I know that I was born at the wrong time. My body needs the technology of tomorrow, and I think that my personality is from the past.”
Feeling trapped by this conundrum, Keplinger sought liberation in unlikely places. When he was 12, he invented the “sport” of pitching himself off the roof of the clubhouse. “It immediately appealed to me,” he says. “The risk, the unknown, the feeling of freedom. I knew what I had to do: crawl to the edge again and again, then over the edge for the rush of a fearless fall through space.”
Although worried neighbors complained about his crash landings, his mother never stopped him — she understood his desires and encouraged him to find alternative outlets. “When it snowed, my mom put layers of socks and plastic bags on my feet,” Keplinger recalls. “I couldn’t make snowballs, but I felt like one. From early on, I knew there was always a way.”
But at 16, Keplinger’s innocence took a terrible blow: His best friend — the only person he considered a peer — died. After that, there was nothing left for him at the Ridge School, so he abandoned the safety of special ed to be mainstreamed at Parkville High. “Nobody knew what to expect or if I would succeed,” he says. “It felt like jumping off the clubhouse roof.”
It turned out to be a huge shock academically and a nonevent socially. He was nervous, which sent his spasticity into overdrive, and a few of the teachers made no effort to disguise their contempt. But then there was art.
“The headstick is my only hand,” Keplinger says. “Although it has no fingers and it’s slow, it gets the paint on the canvas. The minute my headstick goes on, I don’t hear other people in the room, everything is filtered out, creating a state of purity possible only through art.”
Keplinger found respect if not friendship in high school and graduated to a standing ovation. “Looking back,” he says, “Parkville was quite an achievement. I had survived the mainstream, and the mainstream was probably a little different because of me.”
But the mainstream art community still wasn’t ready for Keplinger. Once he got to college, most of his professors wanted nothing to do with him. Dispirited, he almost gave up until he found a teacher who believed in him, someone with the patience and vision to see the person behind the flailing limbs and cryptic speech. Stuart Stein became Keplinger’s mentor, even trying on the headstick himself so he could better understand the artist’s technique. With Stein’s encouragement, Keplinger immersed himself in art, painting 10, 12, 24 hours without a break. He poured his heart into it. “It told of a part of me,” he says, “and a part of the world that only I know.”
That world is now on display at the well-known Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York. That world is now selling for $5,000 a pop. That world has finally become one with the art world.
And that’s the way it should be, Keplinger says, because, funky speech or not, he is no different from any artist.
“Art not only speaks what I cannot say, but it also says what I am afraid to say. It’s kind of a magic, what’s inside of me ends up on the canvas, and sometimes I don’t even know that is inside of me. I think that for any artist who paints, painting says what they cannot speak. All artists speak with their paint brushes.”
Phillip Martin Chavez:
Finding His Voice
It was a great day when Phillip Martin Chavez discovered that wrist splints would allow him return to drawing after a C4-5 spinal cord injury. Then he was injured again.
After the second accident, he lost more function. Since he couldn’t find any way to act on his artistic drive, he ignored it. Decades passed. Then in 1998, the deaths of his older brother, a close cousin and his partner of 14 years sent him searching for ways to channel his grief. He began doodling via DragonDictate, but he didn’t think much of his first “voice painting” and tossed it in the recycling bin, where it lay until his younger brother retrieved it. “Cool!” he said. “You should do more.”
That was the only encouragement Chavez needed, and he began a cathartic outpouring of piece after piece. He’s made up for lost time: Even though some take up to 50 hours to complete, he’s created more than 500 artworks in two years.
“When people hear that I have made my art by voice or ‘verbal directional commands,’ the first reaction is usually ‘wow’ or ‘amazing!'” Chavez says. “Many people assume that I’m using some cutting-edge technology, when actually DragonDictate’s been around for a decade or more. And the paint program I use is the basic Microsoft paint program most of us have in Windows 95 or 98! It just happened to be what was available to me at the time, and I decided that I really wanted to keep my work pure and not use special effect-oriented programs like Photoshop or Illustrator. I have kept my work about lines and color instead of blending or scanning like most digital artists.”
Chavez, 46, hopes to see his work taken to a large scale, perhaps painted on canvas by a technical painter or projected onto hanging fabrics with fans providing movement. “Many of my pieces,” he says, “are about movement and overwhelming color.”
Although he hasn’t taken an art class since junior high, Chavez says he’s learned a lot by paying attention to how he adapts to disability. “My disability has always made me work within certain parameters, so I try to utilize that in my work. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve continued to use such a simple program. It forces me to find new ways to create my work within an extremely limited framework.”
Chavez varies the process — mostly commands such as “drag upper right” — by adding subtle movements of the trackball. Since he doesn’t have sensation in his hands, one art critic dubbed the work “transensory.”
Chavez likes that characterization. “When I truly get in the ‘zone’ I’m very much experiencing a kind of out-of-body experience,” he says. “It’s difficult for me to describe how I feel when I’m working on an emotional piece but it’s very zen. The focal point becomes my world. I do light pieces but prefer to work on pieces when I’m struggling with either a conflict in my life or some other difficult emotion or physical pain. These are all great motivational aspects of my disability that I express through my art.”
As for the future of voice art, Chavez would like to see it accepted as a new medium, and he hopes to help that medium become more sophisticated. “I’d like to work with a programmer to design voice art software with commands like ‘splash angry red’ instead of ‘drag upper left.'”
No matter where it goes, voice painting already does its primary job, Chavez says. “It’s a fascinating study of how you can’t keep art down. It’s like Mother Nature: It’s going to find a way to express itself.”
Brian Bolitho was a sculptor at an early age, but when he fell out of a tree at a rock concert and broke his back at 16, his life spun off in a new direction.
“Dealing with disability,” he says, “kind of locks you into your left brain.” He shifted 180 degrees, from the esthetic to the practical, and eventually found a career as a technician, drafter and mechanical designer in Silicon Valley.
Toward the end of that 25-year career, Bolitho, 46, was concentrating on technical illustration. “It slowly reacquainted me with my right brain,” he says. About that time, he initiated some other changes: He became an independent contractor and spent more time traveling in his RV.
Awestruck by the natural beauty of the West, Bolitho dabbled in photography, but his spiritual experiences on the road weren’t translating into magnificent photos. “I slammed head-on into one of the oldest clichés in the world: boring vacation pictures. They were boring even to me,” he admits.
It wasn’t until four years ago in the Canadian Rockies — knowing that his photos wouldn’t capture the magic of the Continental Divide — that the light bulb came on. “As I turned my head to take in the panorama, the door to my subconscious creaked open,” he says. “Out crept the memory of the fascinating maps made by overlapping still photographs of extraterrestrial landscapes taken by the early unmanned space probes.”
Inspired, Bolitho shot and assembled his first photomosaic. Coworkers said this was no boring vacation picture and, as Bolitho hung more projects in his cubicle, they began offering to buy them.
So a year ago, when Bolitho was laid off from his contract, his wife suggested he take the road not traveled as a young artist. With 14 pieces under his arm, a skeptical Bolitho set out to exhibit his work at an Abilities Expo. To his surprise, he sold 11 of them.
Since then his art has taken on a life of its own. “I have dreamed photomosaics,” he says, “then gone out and made them. Some of these are my best work. It’s changing my personality in some ways — increasingly blurring the boundary between my conscious and subconscious.”
Robert Paul Saphier
Robert Paul Saphier, 56, is a highly trained painter with an impressive stack of art degrees, but his most important learning experience may have been his first trip to India and Nepal.
The year was 1971, just as he began to feel the effects of what would later be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, when the Manhattan native encountered the power of Eastern imagery.
“I was always interested in the spiritual,” he says, “but from time to time I needed a little encouragement. There was something about that trip that hastened the process. My painting began to reflect a deeper beauty and simplicity.”
Saphier also began searching for a guiding principle that might help him focus his evolving consciousness. He’d heard of something called the “Golden Ratio” or “Golden Section” that resonated with him, but he couldn’t find an explanation of how to actually use it in his work.
The concept involves a ratio that echoes throughout a painting, establishing links between the whole and the part. “The result is a harmony, both mathematical and visual,” he says. “Spiritually, the Golden Section is linked to the center, as in a mandala. It provides a focus of concentration, a cohesive rhythmic structure.”
Finally, a sculptor he knew was able to translate theory into practice for Saphier, who in 1990 began to incorporate the ratio into all his work. “A creative explosion took place,” he says.
The Golden Ratio, most visible in his geometric works, is painstaking to achieve, and Saphier says his disability has lent him the necessary discipline. “One of the most important changes since the onset of MS has been an increased capacity for sustained, in-depth concentration that allows for a patient unfolding of the artistic idea and image.”
With these heady ideas floating around, is Saphier staying in contact with planet Earth? “Don’t get the wrong idea,” he says. “I had a terrific turkey and chopped liver sandwich today. That keeps you in the world.”
Robert Paul Saphier is represented by Very Special Arts.