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The Art of Mouth

Reprinted from PN October 2014

Creativity knows no bounds for these amazing artists who create beautiful drawings and paintings using only their mouth.

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When it comes to art, knowing how something was created is often just as amazing and beautiful as the work itself.

It’s incredible to think how an artist takes a lump of clay and sculpts it into a beautiful statue or how someone takes a blank canvas and paints a masterpiece. Knowing the story behind the art can really enhance the allure of what’s been created.

The following people have made marvelous works of art, but how they did it is just as fascinating because they only use their mouths. They each have a spinal-cord injury (SCI) and while that limits the use of their hands and arms, it hasn’t stopped their creativity.

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Painting for Fun

The Spinal Cord Injury Therapeutic Arts and Crafts Program at the St. Louis Health Care System in Missouri was created to encourage veterans to socialize and create to help their recovery and encourage camaraderie.

Rebecca Ballard is an occupational therapist with a fine arts degree and has been working with veterans for more than 30 years.

“We’ve had some instances where a newly-injured veteran is a little shy and reclusive,” Ballard says of veterans who are new to the program. “They continue to come and gain confidence and see other outpatients that are living with a spinal-cord injury and happy and doing well.”

Army veteran Bill Skiles was a military mechanic from 1986–95. He never painted before being in the program, but realized he enjoyed it and has been painting for nearly eight years.

“I kinda found out that I liked it, so I’ve been sticking with it,” Skiles says.


Brom Wikstrom teaches art to students at Lakeridge Elementary School in Seattle.

He is currently working on a Halloween pumpkin with a cat. The project before that was a couple of koala bears. Most of Skiles’ completed projects stay with him or his family members, but he has also participated in local art shows and enjoys displaying his work.

“It feels pretty good,” he says. “It’s nice to know that people are taking recognition of … my work. It is really tedious for me [because] I paint [with my] mouth and it takes a really long time.”

The Animal Lover

Doug Landis started painting in rehab after his injury. He initially used a device to help him paint with his hands, but as time went on he started using only his mouth.

Landis, 55, continued with painting and sketching for several years, but didn’t develop a serious interest in art until he graduated from the California Institute of the Arts and started working.

His interest in pursuing art came when he switched from pen to pencil and began focusing on wildlife.

“I love animals; I love wildlife,” Landis says. “I always start with the eyes and I kinda work out from there. If you get the eyes right, it kind of brings the animals more to life.”

Since then, he has competed in multiple fine arts shows and also joined the International Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Association.

Landis sells his prints on his website, mouthart.com, and through the association, but still paints for personal joy.

“It’s an escape for me,” says Landis, who lives in St. Louis. “If I can get up and start working on it, then I can kind of shut out all the other stuff that’s going on.”

Despite his accomplishments, Landis still claims to be a rookie who doesn’t practice and makes mistakes, but doesn’t let his mistakes become setbacks. He starts a project with a goal in mind and works until it’s finished.

“As one artist said … ‘mistakes are opportunities for embellishment,’ ” Landis says.

The Professional Artist

Art runs in Brom Wikstrom’s veins. Before sustaining an SCI from a swimming accident, he worked as an apprentice for his father, who was a commercial artist in Seattle. After the accident, Brom’s father continued to mentor and encourage him to pursue his art.

Now Brom and his brother, Bill, own an art gallery in Seattle where they teach art classes and hold exhibitions.

“It’s always exciting to see what they come up with,” Wikstrom says of his students’ creations. “I never would have thought that I would get so much satisfaction from presenting other artist’s work as well [as my own].”

Brom is also a member of the Association Mouth and Foot Painting Artists. The 60-year-old paints 8–10 hours a day; most of the time he works on projects for the association or experiments with new ideas for his work.

“I joined the group in 1985 as a student member and I was really excited [to] … have my art reproduced on cards and calendars and different products and seen around the world,” Wikstrom says.

With the association, Wikstrom and his wife, Anné, have had the chance to travel the world.

“I used to love traveling before my accident and I would hitchhike or even hop freight trains to get around,” he says. “I thought that my traveling days were over, but once I got together with Anné, it seems like we go a lot.”

Wikstrom says he and his wife like to take side trips when they travel for association events. Their most memorable journey was a visit to Machu Picchu where they hired a crew to help Brom to the top; they look back on the experience as motivation to get through any of life’s obstacles.

“If we can do that, we can do just about anything,” he says.

Wikstrom is also an advocate for public funding of the arts in Seattle and an occasional lobbyist for the arts in Washington, D.C. He also speaks at local schools and encourages children to express their emotions through art instead of drugs, alcohol or violence.

More information about Wikstrom can be found at bromwikstrom.com.

Self Expression

Art is a way for people to express themselves, which means not all art looks the same. One person may draw a picture of wildlife, another may create a multimedia piece of abstract art and others may use graffiti to express themselves.

Benny Diar has been a graffiti artist since he was a child. The 32-year-old was given an easel and paints when he was 5 years old and has been painting since then.

“I also remember being in first grade and always getting in trouble for trying to draw/copy a dinosaur that was painted on the classroom wall instead of doing my schoolwork,” the Gilroy, Calif., resident says.

Diar grew up around graffiti and was always fascinated by the style. He saw everything from gang monikers to complex artwork and as Diar got older, he began to adopt graffiti as his art form.

“As far back as I can remember, I was always amazed with the graffiti I saw on the street and in the alleys on my way walking to and from grade school,” he says. “I started getting serious about doing graffiti when I was about 11 years old.”

Diar was injured in a car accident in 2008. About eight months after the accident, he continued with his art and began painting with this mouth.

“I was able to paint with my mouth the first time I tried, although with time and practice, my ability and skills continued to improve,” he says.

Diar works constantly to strengthen his neck, which helps his recovery and improves his painting skills. Art is a way to express himself and bring beauty into the world.

“Graffiti was a way for me to be seen while growing up and a way to leave my mark in and on society, a way to create an alter ego and be anyone I wanted,” Diar says. “It was an adrenaline rush along with a stress release. Now, in my situation, I’m very grateful to still have the ability to create and to put myself and my art out there. It’s definitely therapeutic.”

Diar advises aspiring artists to keep trying and not be derailed by the challenges life presents.

“Never stop creating, and don’t be afraid to try something new,” he says. “It may not always be easy, but there is always a way.”

Diar’s artwork, clothing and blog can be seen on his website, bennydiar.com.

 

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