CHICAGO – 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, Ill., 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 life-changing 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 second-floor apartment. 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.
Pare had 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 high school. She won first place in Naperville Art League shows and had a favorable 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, Va. 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. 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 for dealing 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.”
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 organization focused on expressive arts therapy for cognitive disorders, Potts noted that the brain’s capacity to generate art remains after a paralyzing 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,” 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,” 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,” 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,” Potts said.
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.”
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 had 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 re-emerged. After returning to school in 1998, she took nine years of college classes in Web and graphic design and painting, Pare said.
Over the years, she has become an artist of diverse talent, and that’s evident on her website, mariampare.com. Oil paintings of traditional still lifes, landscapes and figurative work are posted. So are watercolors 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. 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 2.
“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 organization is a business. Its motto in the U.S. is “self-help, not charity.”
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 of whom are in the U.S.
Getting to the self-help level can be a struggle. A panel scrutinizes 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, getting first a salary, then a full membership – and higher salary – if the artist’s career continues to progress, March said.
Pare is a productive student member hoping to soon become an associate. About 30 of her pieces have been reproduced internationally by MFPA since she joined, the organization says.
“We feel that Mariam is one of the leading students in the United States,” March said, “and her artistic skill is at a very high level.”
All that renewed promise almost came to an end in 1998, when Pare got separated from friends on the bike path near Monroe Harbor and rolled into Lake Michigan. She remembers landing at the bottom of the lake, staring about 11 feet to the surface and seeing the legs of people who jumped in to save her.
Three men first tried to yank her from the chair, but she was belted in, Pare recalled. They brought her and the chair to the surface, where she gasped for air and told them to release the seat belt. They had to submerge her again to do so, then carried her to the surface, Pare said.
As harrowing as the ordeal was, it “ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she said. Pare made a painting for her rescuers and gave speeches about their heroism, which brought her and her art widespread exposure. It also yielded donations that paid for a new wheelchair.
“It restored my faith in people,” Pare said. “I’d had so many bad experiences and, already being a victim of gun violence, I didn’t like very many people. The outpouring of love that I received from that was life-changing.”