Paint­ing with paral­y­sis

Un­de­terred af­ter a stray bul­let left her a quad­ri­plegic, Mariam Pare has now be­come an artist and a teacher.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - HEALTH - By TED GRE­GORY > TURN TO PAGE 16

IN the past cou­ple of years, about 20 paint­ings by Mariam Pare have been re­pro­duced and sold in­ter­na­tion­ally. In Fe­bru­ary, she’ll be a fea­tured artist in two shows.

And, any day now, she ex­pects to take a job that will pay her a com­fort­able salary to paint.

Those are in­tox­i­cat­ing de­vel­op­ments for any artist, es­pe­cially Pare. She paints with a brush in her mouth.

That’s how she has cre­ated art since 1997, a year af­ter a stray bul­let struck her spinal cord while she was driv­ing and she watched her hands drop from the steer­ing wheel. In that in­stant, a promis­ing young artist from Naperville, Illi­nois, be­came a quad­ri­plegic.

Pare, 38, has risen from that hope­less place by tap­ping the mys­te­ri­ous neu­ro­log­i­cal path­ways that al­low cre­ative ex­pres­sion to flow through a bro­ken body. To­day she is an arts ac­tivist and teacher who sur­vived a lifechang­ing plunge into Lake Michi­gan while strapped in a wheel­chair.

She’s also part of an ex­act­ing, profit-driven group of artists with dis­abil­i­ties who see in their work fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence and life pur­pose.

“I paint out of ... ne­ces­sity, a com­pul­sion,” Pare said one af­ter­noon while work­ing on a paint­ing of a woman float­ing in a bub­ble. “I love do­ing it so much that I don’t think I have a choice in the mat­ter re­ally.”

She laughed. “I paint be­cause I love to paint.”

When she’s not strug­gling through daily life, work­ing to ex­pand com­mu­nity out­reach for art or pro­mot­ing its ther­a­peu­tic value, Pare paints in a 10-by-10 room in a sec­ond­floor apart­ment near Naperville Road and Og­den Av­enue.

She says if she were un­able to paint with a brush loosely set be­tween her teeth on the right side of her mouth, she prob­a­bly would wear a hel­met with a paint­brush and make that work.

A promis­ing young artist

Pare used her right hand to draw and paint since she was a child, and, af­ter mov­ing to Naperville at age 11, it served her well through Jef­fer­son Ju­nior High and Naperville North.

She won first place in Naperville Art League shows and had a favourable port­fo­lio cri­tique at the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago, where re­cruiters urged her to en­roll, she said.

In­stead, Pare headed to San Fran­cisco. She worked in an art sup­ply store, waited ta­bles, stud­ied at a com­mu­nity col­lege and was ac­cepted into an art school there.

A few months be­fore start­ing classes, Pare went to Vir­ginia to visit a friend.

Shortly af­ter sun­down on a rainy Thurs­day, March 28, 1996, she and the friend were driv­ing near Rich­mond, Vir­ginia. Paus­ing at a stop sign, Pare won­dered why so many peo­ple were gath­ered on a cor­ner in the rain. Then she pressed the ac­cel­er­a­tor.

“I heard the pop­ping of the gun, and I saw the glass fly­ing and it all hap­pened re­ally fast,” she said. “It was just noise and then I couldn’t move. I didn’t know I’d been shot. I just felt a kind of bolt of elec­tric­ity be­hind me and a flash of heat.”

She was 20 years old. Au­thor­i­ties never made an ar­rest, and three months af­ter the shoot­ing, Pare was air­lifted to the Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion In­sti­tute of Chicago. Staff slowly drew her off a breath­ing ma­chine and gave her in­valu­able strate­gies to deal with her new life.

About two months later, an oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist put a pen in Pare’s left hand to write her name.

She failed. The ther­a­pist sug­gested she try with the pen in her mouth, and Pare was as­ton­ished to find that her writ­ing looked nearly the same as when she could use her right hand.

“I was like, oh, wow, I could ap­ply this to paint­ing,” Pare re­called. “Maybe I could draw, or maybe it might be fun to paint while I’m in here and have all this time. That’s when I kind of got ex­cited and de­cided to ex­plore what I could do again.”

A ‘new’ be­gin­ning

Forg­ing that path, as ar­du­ous as it was for Pare, is a “fas­ci­nat­ing” prop­erty of the brain, said Dr Daniel Potts, neu­rol­o­gist and as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Alabama.

Founder of Cog­ni­tive Dy­nam­ics, an or­gan­i­sa­tion fo­cused on ex­pres­sive arts ther­apy for cog­ni­tive dis­or­ders, Dr Potts noted that the brain’s ca­pac­ity to gen­er­ate art re­mains af­ter a paralysing in­jury.

The is­sue be­comes how to bring out that art.

“When the end point of the nor­mal mo­tor path­way is taken away and the drive to pro­duce art is still present,” Dr Potts said, “the brain and mo­tor sys­tem work to cre­ate a new mech­a­nism for artis­tic pro­duc­tion.”

Ex­actly how that hap­pens re­mains some­what mys­te­ri­ous and the­o­ret­i­cal, but Potts said the ba­sic con­cept that the brain finds another path for ex­pres­sion af­ter an in­jury is widely ac­cepted.

And, Pare’s tran­si­tion makes more sense when one un­der­stands that re­gions of the brain con­trol­ling the hand and mouth are fairly close to each other, Potts said.

He com­pared it to some­one tak­ing the back roads to get to a desti­na­tion when the in­ter­state is blocked. Pare’s brain has “rerouted the mo­tor out­put to the mouth and the mus­cles of the neck”, Dr Potts said.

As she, or any­one else, con­tin­ues to work, those path­ways de­velop fur­ther, “much like when a pian­ist gets bet­ter play­ing scales with prac­tice,” he said. Pare takes a sim­i­lar view. “It’s some­thing that’s in­side you,” she said, adding that her knowl­edge of “what the paint could do” and how to use it were ad­van­tages when she re­sumed paint­ing. “Your aes­thet­ics or your sense of ges­ture isn’t nec­es­sar­ily phys­i­cal or as­so­ci­ated with the limb you use.”

The larger is­sue “is the tri­umph of the hu­man body, this in­domitable drive to cre­ate, de­spite the af­flic­tion”, Dr Potts said. “There is still a per­son who can tap into that cre­ativ­ity, which says to me that the parts of the brain in­volved in cre­at­ing and ex­pres­sions of cre­ativ­ity are very pow­er­ful.”

That ca­pac­ity, he said, is a key rea­son peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties should have op­por­tu­ni­ties to cre­ate.

“I think sto­ries like Mariam’s bring home the point that we should never give up on folks with dis­abil­i­ties,” Dr Potts said.

Not all smooth sail­ing

Progress, how­ever, can be ex­cru­ci­at­ing. Pare re­called that, among other chal­lenges, she had to de­velop fine mo­tor skills, en­durance and strength in her neck and mouth.

“That was kind of dis­cour­ag­ing ... and hum­bling,” she said of her early work, which re­sem­bled stick fig­ures. “I was like, ‘I thought I was a good artist. I am a good artist. Why isn’t it com­ing out of me?’ It was like I was a child again.”

While she de­vel­oped her artis­tic skill, the art helped her de­velop ac­cep­tance of a new ex­is­tence through self-portraits Pare pro­duced in art ther­apy.

“I felt very in­se­cure and so­cially awk­ward,” Pare said, like “I was a stranger in my own body ... and it was some­thing that pained me a lot. When I did th­ese paint­ings, it was an at­tempt to rein­tro­duce my­self to my­self, and I wanted to be truth­ful.”

Mak­ing the paint­ings forced her to look at her­self, the last thing she wanted to do, Pare said, and en­abled her to ac­cept who she’d be­come. Cre­at­ing that art was “very cathar­tic”, she said, and helped her de­ter­mine that “dis­abil­ity isn’t tra­di­tion­ally beau­ti­ful, but you can love your­self”.

Her skill­ful cre­ativ­ity even­tu­ally reemerged. Af­ter re­turn­ing to school in 1998, she took nine years of col­lege classes in Web and graphic de­sign and paint­ing, Pare said.

Wil­lowy with a soft voice, lyri­cal laugh and open de­meanour, Pare said she likes to paint “colour­ful, happy things, sur­re­al­ism and ex­pres­sion­ism”, and im­ages that evoke emo­tion.

Over the years, she has be­come an artist of di­verse tal­ent, which is ev­i­dent on her web­site, mari­ampare.com. Oil paint­ings of tra­di­tional still life, land­scapes and fig­u­ra­tive work are posted. So are wa­ter­colours and ab­stracts in acrylic. She also pro­duces dig­i­tal art that com­bines photography, draw­ing and com­puter soft­ware ma­nip­u­la­tion.

About six years ago, she started cre­at­ing more com­mer­cial art, af­ter join­ing Mouth and Foot Paint­ing Artists (MFPA).

Based in Liecht­en­stein, MFPA was es­tab­lished in 1957 by Ger­man artist Ar­nulf Erich Stegmann, who lost use of his arms and hands af­ter be­ing stricken with po­lio when he was two years old.

He brought to­gether a small group of dis­abled artists from eight coun­tries with the ob­jec­tive of earn­ing liv­ings and gain­ing work se­cu­rity through their art. And he loathed the per­cep­tion of the MFPA as a char­ity.

“To Stegmann, the word char­ity was as ab­hor­rent as the word pity,” the MFPA states on its web­site.

James March, di­rec­tor of the group’s North Amer­i­can of­fice, notes that the or­gan­i­sa­tion is a busi­ness. Its motto in the United States is “self-help, not char­ity”.

Hold­ing their own

Artists of the MFPA can sell their orig­i­nal pieces, but the group holds the copy­right and makes its money by us­ing re­pro­duc­tions on greet­ing cards, cal­en­dars, jig­saw puzzles, chil­dren’s books and prints, March said. MFPA has about 800 mem­bers, he added; 64 in the US.

Get­ting to the self-help level can be a strug­gle. A panel scru­ti­nises sub­mit­ted work to de­ter­mine if an artist dis­plays enough tal­ent and pas­sion to merit a stu­dent mem­ber­ship.

Those stu­dents re­ceive money for art classes, aides and trans­porta­tion, March said. Af­ter a few years, the panel re­views their work and determines if it mea­sures up to MFPA stan­dards.

If the board deems the work wor­thy, the artist be­comes an as­so­ci­ate mem­ber, which in­cludes a salary, then a full mem­ber­ship

Mariam Pare paints with a brush in her mouth. that’s how she has cre­ated art since 1997, a year af­ter a stray bul­let struck her spinal cord while she was driv­ing.

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