Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Mouth Painter Mariam Paré

By the time she was 20, Mariam Paré was already an accomplished artist. She had grown up painting and drawing, and was pursuing her bachelor’s degree in fine arts. But when gunfire suddenly erupted while she was driving to visit a friend in Virginia, a stray bullet passed through the car door, struck the back of her neck, and rendered her a quadriplegic. Without the ability to grasp a brush with her hands, she assumed her future as an artist was simply no longer possible.

But during her recovery at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, a therapist helped her learn how to sign her name by holding a pencil in her mouth. Paré began to wonder: If she could manipulate a pencil with her mouth, why not a paintbrush? So began her arduous journey to relearn how to paint, and to become as talented as she once was.

By all accounts, she has succeeded. A member of the prestigious Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (AMFPA), Paré has shown her work at galleries and festivals both internationally and domestically. She has been featured on outlets such as The Today Show, has launched a second career as a motivational speaker, and has met celebrities such as John Stamos, Neil Patrick Harris, and Pierce Brosnan, who commissioned her for a portrait. We recently caught up with Paré about her creative process, the role art played in her recovery, and her dream subject to have sit for a portrait.

A woman paints a portrait by holding a paintbrush with her mouth

Mariam Paré paints a portrait of Chuck Close. Photo courtesy of Mariam Paré

NEA: What were your early experiences with art? Did you grow up in an artistic household?

MARIAM PARÉ: I grew up in a really unique household. I was born in Morocco. My dad was a Marine and I came to the United States [when I was] very young with my family. Growing up, my mom had all her cultural Moroccan things. She loved to cook and sew and make beads. My dad’s passions were photography and carpentry. So I was part of this really eclectic family with this diverse history, and I was always exposed to making things. Everybody in my family tends to be artistic. So when I said I wanted to be an artist, they encouraged it. I think I was born an artist and always wanting to make things because of my family.

NEA: And then you had your injury. What role did the arts play in your recovery, either physically or mentally or both?

PARÉ: When I had my injury, I was 20 years old. I'd already picked a path in life. I knew I was going to finish college. I wanted to get a fine arts degree and I was going to be a starving artist or whatever. That was my plan.

When I had my injury, that's the last thing in the whole world you expect. When you think your whole life you're going to be able to paint and all of a sudden you find yourself as a disabled, paralyzed person who can no longer use their hands, your whole life has changed. Your future has changed.

I was an art student before I was disabled. After I became disabled, I really thought that that was all out the window. I thought my whole life would be disability and nursing homes. I knew nothing about disability. But I slowly learned, through my therapists and my doctors, that people with disabilities can figure out new ways to do things. One of the things I knew I needed in my life was art. I was an artist before, and I was always, in the back of my head [wondering], "How am I ever going to paint again if I can't use my hands? Am I going to be able to fulfill the dreams that I once had?" That was a big time of uncertainty for me.

After my disability, I learned to paint with my mouth. I learned that I could still make art, but just in a different way. When I realized for the first time I could paint with my mouth and I had a lot of control, it gave me hope, because there were so many things that I couldn't do. I mean, I was depressed and suicidal when I was first disabled. But being able to paint, literally thank God for that. Out of everything I had lost, the one thing I still had with my ability to make art! I'm already an emotional person. I'm very empathic. I'm very expressive. So art played everything in my coping and recovery. Being able to paint kept me sane. It truly did.

NEA: What was that process like when you were re-teaching yourself how to paint and draw?

PARÉ: It was humbling. I really sucked at first. Months before my accident, I was painting sophisticated portraits and landscapes. I had a great talent and people loved it. But once I became disabled, it was like starting all over again. I had to learn how to draw again, learn how to paint again, learn how my mouth made brush strokes differently than my hand would make brush strokes. It really knocked my ego down because all my life, I had been praised for my artistic abilities. But here I was starting all over again. Like stick figures—chicken scratch is what I used to call it.

With every painting I would successfully finish, I was stealing back my life, I was conquering my physical limitations. With every new painting, I got a little bit better at painting with my mouth. And seeing that potential, seeing that I could get better gave me hope to keep going, to keep trying. That was so powerful for me. I made a goal to be at least as good as I once was with my hands. It took me probably eight, nine years before I looked at a painting in front of me that I painted with my mouth and said, "Okay, that's as good as I could have done before." But that was ten years ago. The really exciting part is now I feel like I'm creating work that surpasses what I ever was able to do with my hands. Honestly, I really do. And that's really cool. Now painting with my mouth is second nature. I don't even think about my hands anymore. I'm just excited for what I'm going to make in the future. I'm excited for the art that's going to come.

My disability may have even set me apart from other artists. In such a competitive art world, you have to be different than everybody else. So I think my disability kind of gave me the lifestyle and allowed me the freedom and time to be able to paint. In this weird way, I think it was kind of fate.

Painting of David Bowie

David Bowie by Mariam Paré. Reprinted by the courtesy of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Worldwide

NEA: I think it's impressive for any adult—disabled or not—to still feel like they’re growing and developing. I don’t think many people have that.

PARÉ: I think so too. I think a lot of people could become discouraged. Whenever I talk to newly injured people, that's the message I give them. Disability is going to suck at first. You may get discouraged, because you're going to have to work harder. If you want something, you may have to work harder at it. But that's how I know I love art—because I didn't mind working harder at it. It was the one thing I could put my effort towards. But I think in general, people get discouraged easily by things they're not good at. But that's always been my message: Keep trying. Keep going. If you want something, get it. Take it. If it takes time, that's okay. People always want things to happen right away, but it doesn't really happen that way.

NEA: I recently interviewed the artistic director of Phamaly Theatre, which is a company in Denver made up of actors with disabilities. We discussed this concept of disability as a creative asset. I was curious to hear your take on that.

PARÉ: As a disabled person, being creative can be cathartic. It took me a long time to be able to make art about my disability. I was a painter of faces and landscapes and still lifes, but there was a part of me that wanted to express my experience. When I finally got to the point where I felt I could paint about my experience as a paralyzed person, I painted all these birds tied to rocks and people buried up to their chest. I called the series Heavy. It was the first time in my life I was able to make art based on that. But once I was, it really helped me come to terms with my disability and my place in the world. I found it created a dialogue that was not possible beforehand. When I try to explain to somebody what disability is like, or what it is like being a survivor of gun violence, they might not understand it. But if they can see a picture of something I pour my heart out into, and they look at that, art becomes the universal language for understanding. Viewing disability as a creative asset may be a way of destructing our differences and similarities through the intimate lens of visual art, allowing a catalyst for growth, and hopefully revealing how our differences can add value to our communities and give a voice to valuable members.

NEA: I know you're very active with the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists. What impact has working with that group had on your journey as an artist?

PARÉ: The AMFPA has been everything to me. At a time where I thought I was the only person who painted in this weird way with my mouth, I was amazed to find out that there were hundreds of other people doing it. So the camaraderie alone has been amazing.

But it's also so important to have self-worth and to be able to make a living loving what you're doing. In a world where people patronize people with disabilities, and they think, "Oh, you're an ‘artist?’ Oh, good for you. Oh, you paint paintings? Oh, that's nice." They're so full of platitudes; they don't understand. There is a long history of people underestimating those with disabilities.

The AMFPA is the antithesis of that. We are professional artists. We hold ourselves to the highest standard. It's not a charity. The whole association is run and controlled by disabled artist members. It is a bunch of disabled people who are artists recognizing, "Hey, we need to make a business model that supports our lives and capitalizes on the fact that, yeah, we paint with our mouth or our feet. We're different. But we are professional, and we are equal." So being a part of them has been really wonderful because it taught me that you don't always have to be a charity. You don't always have to be a not-for-profit. You can be a money-making, bread-winning person with a disability. And still be an artist!

NEA: What have you learned about making art or your own artistic practice that might not be as apparent to an able-bodied artist?

PARÉ: I'm a firm believer that anyone can make art, and anyone can be good at art. People say, "Oh, I can't even draw a straight line." I think that art is the one thing that is available to anyone. It's not just the hand or the limb that you use to create a painting—you can make art in any way. I think what might not be obvious to mainstream people or to mainstream artists is that there are so many ways to make art. I know there are traditional ways of making art, but I want the non-traditional ways to be just as legitimate.

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?

PARÉ: I'm always searching for the next challenge and I'm always following what interests me. My interests are always changing and morphing—I follow my bliss when it comes to art. I don't like to restrict myself in any way. As a younger artist, I'm still trying to find my path. I'm trying to find the subject that I love the most. I'm still waiting for that masterpiece.

I'm trained in traditional oils, but even with medium and material, I don't limit myself. I'm branching out into mixed media; I've even been branching off into photography. I've been collaborating with other disabled artists recently, and working on photo projects where we take famous paintings and other iconic imagery that are familiar to the collective consciousness of our society—like The Last Supper, the photo of raising the flag at Iwo Jima, or Mona Lisa—and embed them with subjects in wheelchairs and other artifacts of disability, as a means of melding disability culture into mainstream imagery. There are many subtle observations that we can accentuate and highlight to create relatable scenarios that will redress the way in which society views disability. The goal is to make disability more relatable as an everyday visual component, to make difference no longer seem so foreign, possibly demystifying the differences.

So often people with disabilities are not included in mainstream imagery—why is that? Let's put more disabled people in art and film and photography. So creating [those photographs] is an attempt to normalize our existence in mainstream media, to make it not so taboo. It's been amazing to find that I have a voice, and that I have something to say on these things.

NEA: You mentioned that you hope these photographs change the way that people think about disability. How do you hope that your paintings might change the way someone thinks about disability?

PARÉ: I hope it makes it not so mysterious and not so taboo or not such a curiosity. We're not so different than any normal person. That's always been my aim when creating these photographs or paintings: to show that [our experience] is universal. These feelings that we have are universal. One person might have a physical challenge or a physical barrier, and somebody might not completely relate to that experience. But if they see an image, the image itself might evoke a sense of understanding that might not be possible in any other way. That person may identify that in their own life, [they have] their own ways that they are tied to a rock. It creates understanding, I think, that can't be made in any other way.

NEA: You've done a lot of portraiture. I was wondering if you had a dream person to have sit for a portrait?

PARÉ: I usually paint people who I think are cool or who inspire me in some way. I've painted a lot of the people already that I think that about: Frida Kahlo, Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, John Lennon. I'm currently working on Bill Murray, because I think he's the coolest dude ever. But if I could really have someone sit and be allowed to talk to them, it would be Banksy, so I can see his face. Or even Marina Abramović. You know, somebody I want to look at; somebody I want to stare into their eyes and spend time with. That would be a dream. I usually look from reference photos or from pictures. To be able to sit with somebody and paint them would be amazing.

This interview originally appeared on the Art Works blog on October 30, 2018.


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