Speech to The Rotary International Convention in Washington June 2, 2012
It’s an honor to be with you this morning and I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you and share some of the experiences that have led me to be here in support of your dynamic organization. Thanks to Sharon Edberg. This is a way for me to reciprocate for her help when I was auction chair in conducting the annual auction that is hosted by the Puget Sound Group of NW Painters. Sharon’s husband Gordy is a member and past president. Once a year we share the stress and satisfaction of offering some very fine works of art to our patrons and friends.
I must confess though that I have been relatively ignorant of Rotary International beyond a general knowledge that it is a service organization made up of business and community leaders that meet regularly to promote a variety of worthy programs and to provide scholarships. I’ve seen Rotary signs along the highways I’ve traveled and admit that I have felt a bit jealous of those who know a sense of belonging and sharing in the good work that you do.
It didn’t take much research to discover how closely the philosophy of Rotary aligned with my own, though for me it was a long and difficult path to put that realization into global action. I’ll be 60 next year and I can see more clearly now how the dots came together from coincidence and opportunity to form success.
Your motto, Service Above Self, is a concept that I fully embrace and it has been a defining characteristic of my life since I can remember. Little did I know what dramatic changes would occur as a result of being willing to share myself in pursuit of developing my artistic skills, and bringing that to children and adults with disabilities.
My parents exemplified service through their work with our church growing up. My father’s commitment to our country through his military service and his participation in cultural groups in the Northwest showed me how people coming together in common purpose can bring about positive social change. Social change was what the 60s were all about. I was an active participant in the underground culture of the time and saw that creative inspiration in the music and art produced then brought people together with joy, peace and love.
Since my father was one of the most highly regarded art directors in Seattle in the 50s and 60s I felt a certain destiny about pursuing art as a career and even illustrated the yearbook in high school. After 2 years of college commercial art training I was working as a sign painter for a regional drug store chain and as an occasional helper in my father’s studio. As an artist I accepted that I would lead an unconventional life and decided to embark on a series of journeys that would test my spirit and broaden my horizons with some key experiences.
I became familiar with traveling by hopping freight trains and hitchhiking, and made several trips to southern Oregon and Los Angeles with friends who would watch my back. My longest journey that way was to Ann Arbor, Michigan for a Blues and Jazz Festival. At 20 I signed a 6-month contract to work aboard a seafood processing ship in Dutch Harbor, AK. During these journeys I began to gain an appreciation for a co-operative spirit that could solve problems, improve the general good or at least express compassion in a way that brought people understanding.
A friend proposed a trip to New Orleans in the winter of 1975 for the Mardis Gras. I had always wanted to visit that city of history, music and culture. We had a mutual friend that offered to put us up for awhile. It became apparent that a change had come over America in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam when for the first time traveling people weren’t as willing to give us rides, greyhound bus drivers were suspicious and we were finally obliged to get a cheap rental car for the last leg of our trip into the Big Easy on Mardis Gras night.
I immediately fell in love with the city and its vibrant music and art scene and the low cost of living. Between unemployment checks and day jobs we were able to secure rent on a dinky space uptown by Tulane University and the Mississippi River. I was determined to get a job painting signs and prepared a portfolio of my work to take around to the different sign shops. The choirs of the Southern Baptist churches contrast the hedonism of Bourbon Street remarkably and I was pleased to embrace both extremes around the city as well as free symposia offered through Tulane University.
After 3 months I had gotten a good job with the largest electrical sign company in the city and began learning plastic fabrication and neon while angling for a position in the art department. I was also anxious to capture the sights of the area in my sketchbook and would make weekend trips to the Florida panhandle and along the river levee on bicycle. These became the last carefree memories I would have.
On a hot and muggy Sunday morning I went to take a short refreshing swim in the river. I knew of a safe area where I might swim and lounge on the beach. My roommate had been up for awhile and was at the far end of the shoreline. Youthful exuberance had the better of me and rather than wade into the water I went for a bounding headfirst dive into what was supposed to be deep water. Hitting my head into a sandbar under a few inches resulted in immediate paralysis and I was unable to lift myself free. I would not have survived had my friend not recognized my peril and pulled me up onto shore before I drowned.
I was about to be tested like never before and I would find a way to tap into resources I never knew I had in order to come to grips with the devastation I had visited upon myself. Along the way I would rely on family and friends, my health care team and miscellaneous caseworkers and vocational counselors to navigate the web of red tape in reestablishing my life in a productive and worthwhile way.
After 7 weeks in New Orleans Charity Hospital I was a wreck with pressure sores, pneumonia, a punctured and infected esophagus and was losing weight fast. My mother and brother came down as soon as they had heard to administer to my needs full time without having to rely on the overworked nursing staff and they certainly saved my life. At the first sign of stabilization in my condition we were able to enlist a flying nurse service to transport me to Seattle’s University of WA Hospital where I began a yearlong rehabilitation.
High-level quadriplegia is a curious condition where one’s world shrinks dramatically to one of reliance on others for the basics in life and the opportunities to develop a normal existence are severely restricted. I barely considered my artistic possibilities during my time in rehab. I was concerned with getting stronger so that I might use a manual wheelchair rather than be dependant on a motorized chair. I did use a stick in my mouth to operate a keyboard and to turn pages in a book but didn’t consider that I would adopt that approach to creating my paintings until just before my discharge to my parent’s home.
I had never been much of a joiner before but was now reluctantly a member of a distinct underclass in both practical and philosophic terms. Before the Americans with Disabilities Act there was a lot of discrimination that was excused because it was too expensive to adapt a space to accommodate wheelchairs or not enough people might use a facility to justify the extra expense. For the most part, people with disabilities were accepting of this fate as a consequence of their condition. Wheelchair users weren’t expected to hold meaningful positions except for those Super crips who with determination and social contacts might establish themselves in the real world.
A physical therapist at the hospital asked if I would volunteer to speak with students in the UW School of Dentistry about spinal cord injuries and my initial fear of speaking to a large group diminished when he assured me that he would moderate my talk and that I would get regular dental cleanings for free through the school outreach program. You will see how this benign gesture of volunteering my time would set the stage for true happiness in my life.
Once I had moved to my parent’s home where my needs were addressed and my brother was employed through a state agency to be my personal care attendant, I reassessed my life and gave some grave consideration to what I was going to do. A deep depression followed. I was very angry with myself for ruining my body and spoiling the chances of happiness I might have had.
And so I began to paint. Just squiggly lines and boxy shapes at first. Months of frustration would follow where I saw little improvement in the pictures I was making and normally I would trash a day’s effort in the wastebasket rather than be reminded of the poor quality of art that I produced. My folks were encouraging and even arranged for some of my sketches to be matted and displayed in the hospital’s day room where a few of my therapy friends bought some to lift my spirits.
It was around this time that I first heard of the International Association of Mouth & Foot Painting Artists. Now over 50 years in existence, the Association provides a steady source of income to its full members. Student members have the opportunity to better their prospects of elevation through diligent effort and continuing instruction. Proceeds are generated through the sale of cards, calendars and other products. What peaked my interest in the group was its self-help nature and the chance to have my work seen in different parts of the world. I duly applied through the official channels based in Liechtenstein and started up a correspondence with members in the U.S. It took several years of hard work improving my skills and reapplying with new work before I was finally accepted as a student member.
An artist friend of mine asked me whether I would be interested in volunteering with him at Children’s Hospital in Seattle to provide arts experiences to the patients. I was feeling anxious to participate in society again and feeling comfortable in a hospital setting allowed me to concentrate on the activities rather than my limitations. I did require some transportation help. My parents and brothers stepped up to insure that I could continue this activity that became increasingly important to my sense of self worth.
I was surprised to learn that I was receiving much more in return for my efforts than I gave. To spend time with young children, many of whom had been disabled their entire lives, and to respect their natural creative abilities was a revelation to me. The spirit demonstrated by the patients and their endurance with their condition helped me to realize that a positive future could be had with a little faith and persistence.
After some time I decided to seek a grant through the Seattle Arts Commission to develop the program further, and was rewarded with a yearlong stipend to be the artist-in-residence at the hospital. At first we commandeered bulletin boards and display cases around the hospital to show the work we produced but I felt that it was important to show the patient’s work outside of the hospital and located a co-op gallery in downtown Seattle. I also contacted my counselor to see what special training the State Dept. of Vocational Rehabilitation might provide should I seek to become a licensed art therapist.
A special education teacher whom I met during my time at Children’s Hospital asked me to participate in an arts festival in Tacoma hosted by VSA arts, at the time called Very Special Arts, an educational affiliate of the Kennedy Center in WA DC founded by Jean Kennedy Smith. VSA had been established the year before my injury. Washington State was one of the earliest chapters in this group that now has programs around the world. I brought several patients with me and we had a blast doing painting, music, dance and literary arts.
Before long I was volunteering on the local board of VSA and listed as a guest teacher in area schools through a roster maintained by the WA ST Arts Commission. I began to feel like I was making headway in my efforts to re-establish my art career and was surprised that I would enjoy teaching art to school children with and without disabilities. The state Dept. of Voc. Rehab had provided funding for me to take some college extension courses but was not very forthcoming when I approached them about having my paintings framed for an exhibition.
I was told that if I was willing to volunteer my time that DVR would help locate a cultural institution where I might establish a paid position. They would provide a gas allowance and make any job station modifications I might require. I was ambivalent at first about taking on an activity that would limit my time painting but trusted that things would work out for the best. When I learned that my counselor had received a positive response from the Burke Museum of Natural History at the UW to be staff receptionist I jumped at the chance and enjoy it now as much as I did when I started nearly 30 years ago, though I work only one day a week these days.
Every 6 months I would get a call from the UW Dental School to receive my free student cleaning. It didn’t take too many times to learn to request a female hygienist who would have a more gentle touch and made the experience a bit more pleasant. My hygienist was changed at the last minute and it resulted in the biggest change in my life since my injury, many years before. It was springtime in the northwest and Anne and I both fell in love and married the following year. She is a truly remarkable woman in every way and would be with me today if she wasn’t attending her high school reunion in Arkansas. I can’t begin to share with you what she means to me in our life together that spans 25 years now.
Anne was a seasoned traveler when we met, having lived in Switzerland for a few years and learning Italian in the process. I had only taken 2 trips since my injury; a trip to WA DC to take part in the first VSA arts festival where I met Andy Warhol at the Kennedy Center and then 5 years later as a delegate for the first international VSA Art Festival, also in WA DC.
She has 2 grown daughters and 5 grandchildren and I have been blessed to play a part in their lives.
It seems as though from the moment we met we started receiving invitations to travel to different parts of the U.S. and the world in support of a movement celebrating the artistic achievements of people with disabilities. The VSA Festival in 1989 was held in Brussels. We took the occasion to rent a van with ramps and drive through the Netherlands, France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany for my first trip abroad. Anne was gracious about helping me to see the art museums along the way including the Louvre. It was a pleasant surprise that nearly every museum we visited allowed free admission to those in a wheelchair and often their companion as well.
In 1992 I became a full member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists. I have been fortunate to be a delegate at the conventions that are held around the world every three years. In 1997 we celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the group in Vienna and a special book was produced with paintings on the theme of world peace that is often presented to dignitaries. Other conventions we’ve attended were in Sydney, Shanghai, Buenos Aires and Lisbon. In Lima, Peru, to attend a conference, we enlisted a crew that helped me get to the top of Machu Picchu.
The Association underwrites a gallery outside of London. I was invited to have a solo exhibition of my work and stay for a month at a local college designed for students with special needs. My sponsor there, Tom, is a gifted painter who uses his feet to create his paintings as the result of a birth defect due to thalidomide exposure. With no arms, he has difficulties that I will never understand, yet he has painted for the queen, and is a valued advocate in Britain.
In Taiwan we met Kun Shan Hsieh who lost the use of his arms by accidental electrocution. He now paints beautiful oils with his mouth that grace museum walls and cultural institutions around Asia. He mentors youths with disabilities and was recently elected to the board of our group.
Simona Atzori is Italian who was also born without arms yet besides being a skilled painter, she is also an internationally recognized dancer who has performed for the pope and helped opened the Torino Winter Paralympic Games.
I was very glad to show the work of New Zealander Grant Sharman at a small gallery I operate in Seattle. Grant was paralyzed playing rugby and took up painting as therapy. He developed a passion that he shares enthusiastically with other association student members. We were also glad to reciprocate his generosity in welcoming us to his home outside Aukland and arranging tours for us around New Zealand. He now coaches the Paralympic wheelchair rugby team.
I have been inspired by my fellow painters in the association in the same way that I was inspired by the patients at children’s hospital. In spite of tremendous odds and limited means they have pursued their dreams of self-reliance and artistic expression and they have found joy in creation.
All of the best things in my life have come about because I was willing to share my time and resources with my community, whether locally, nationally or internationally. In 2007 Governor Gregoire named me to serve on the State Arts Commission. I have become keenly aware of the challenges that the legislature, cultural institutions and individual artists across the state face when they try to advance awareness of the value of art and help students develop skills to deal with the world around them in a constructive way.
We all have a part to play and one voice really can make a difference. The world is increasingly connected and the pace of change seems to accelerate all the time. Walking in someone else’s footsteps for a while gives us the opportunity to slow down, recognize the worth of the individual human spirit, and make a positive change.
So I thank you for your commitment to your humanitarian goals, your global efforts to eradicate disease, improve literacy and the grants and stipends you provide. They will most certainly yield benefits far into the future.