In 1996, at just 20-years-old, artist Mariam Paré was shot while driving a friend’s car in Chicago.
A bullet passed through the door of the car and struck Paré in the neck, paralyzing her instantly. She remembers watching as her own hands dropped lifelessly from the steering wheel onto her lap, still conscious, but unable to move.
The gunshot wound resulted in a spinal cord injury, leaving her a quadriplegic - unable to walk and with limited upper body and hand movement.
Her art was temporarily abandoned as she learned how to navigate the world with a disability.
Then a therapy session changed everything.
“I had learned from a therapist how to write my name with a pen in my mouth and I took that idea and said, ‘well, I love painting so much and I want to still have painting in my life. I should try painting this way,’” Paré said.
“I found that I could do it and kept doing it and ever since then I’ve been developing myself as an artist but as a mouth-painting artist.”
She began with stick figures, and worked her way up to complex portraits and landscapes.
“It is like starting over again,” Paré said. “It wasn’t like it was automatically as good as I had been with my hands.
“I had to learn what my neck could do and what motions would mimic a flick of the wrist or a light shading touch with the hand. I experimented a lot to find the brushstrokes I had before.”
Now, Paré serves as an ambassador for Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, a group of working artists with disabilities.
She recently wrapped up a North American tour at a stop at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts.
With her easel set up, a palette of acrylic paints nearby and a paintbrush gripped tightly between her teeth and lips, Pare painted while onlookers watched.
Most of Paré’s paintings are brightly colored depictions of people, sometimes imagined, sometimes celebrities like Pierce Brosnan as Agent 007 or fellow painter Frida Kahlo.
It She said it took years for her to base art on her experience as a gunshot victim and disabled person, but the “Heavy Series” changed that. The paintings, mostly devoid of color, depicted images like clouds hanging by ropes or birds tied to boulders.
“It was my attempt at creating images that if an able-bodied person were to look at them, might visually give them an idea of what the heaviness of paralysis might be like, the heaviness of the body and spirit, something that would give them a tactile experience of it,” Paré said.
Through her art and mouth-painting demonstrations, Paré hopes to inspire people - those with disabilities and those without – to continue their passions no matter what obstacles they encounter.
See more of Mariam Paré's art.