Artists conquer physical limitations


Photo courtesy of Kaitlin Hetterscheidt

“Unbroken: Art After Injury” honors Spinal Cord Awareness Month at the Next Door Cafe, 659 W. Diversey Parkway.

By Assistant Arts & Culture

When a stray bullet paralyzed Mariam Paré 17 years ago, she thought her artistic career was over.

But Paré, along with Kennedy N’ganga, Amanda Barnes and Jenni Kostanski, is a featured artist in the exhibition “Unbroken: Art After Injury,” hosted by Lincoln Park’s Next Door Cafe, 659 W. Diversey Parkway, in celebration of Spinal Cord Awareness Month. Each has overcome debilitating spinal cord injuries to continue his or her dreams of creating original artwork.

While parked at a stop sign, gunfire erupted on a nearby street corner and Paré was struck by a bullet, hitting her spinal cord and paralyzing her immediately. 

“It wasn’t until I got to the hospital when they told me I had been shot and I was paralyzed,” Paré said. “It was devastating.”

At the time of her injury, Paré was an art student studying advanced figure drawings and realistic still-life artwork. Paré said she had to relearn how to do almost everything, which led to her learning a special mouth-painting technique.

“When I put the brush in my mouth the first time, it was so steady and it was easy and it kind of developed from there,” Paré said. “It’s been 17 years that I’ve been painting like this, and at first it was clumsy, and it took me a really long time to get to the point that I had with the ability of my hands. That was very humbling for me.”

Barnes also suffered an injury at a young age. She was a painting and drawing major at California College of the Arts in San Francisco three years ago when she was involved in a hit-and-run accident while crossing the street, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. Through networking and meeting with fellow disabled artists, Barnes found a community full of support.

“Ever since my injury, I became a part of Facebook groups which bring everyone with spinal cord injuries together online,” she said. “I also go to the San Jose Disabilities Expo every year, so I was connected with Backbones because I wanted to help them with their goals.”

With the help of the Backbones organization, which supports victors of spinal cord injuries, Barnes now has a platform to showcase her artwork to a broader audience.

“They saw my artwork, and I was approached by [founder of Backbones] Reveca [Torres] who messaged me and asked if I wanted to be a part of the show,” Barnes said. “Of course I said yes. It’s an amazing opportunity to get my art out.”

Kostanski found painting to be therapeutic after a 2003 car accident left her unable to use her hands, though she admits getting back to painting took some time. She said it took her close to six months before she even considered painting again.

“When I was first injured, I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything art-related at all because I didn’t know what kind of arm function I would have based on the level of my injury,” she said. “I wasn’t really able to even lift my hands to my nose or above my head, which made it really difficult for me to do any sort of artwork.”

Kostanski said she now focuses more on abstract art as a result of her spinal cord injury. She said  the intricate brush strokes used with other painting styles caused her to have involuntary spasms. 

“Abstract art is a little more fun to do because you can be a little messy with it and still come up with something beautiful,” she said.

Each artist featured in the show has triumphed over the obstacles spinal cord injury has imposed on them. Paré said she had to slowly work through the limitations her injury placed on her life.

“When I couldn’t really even use my hands anymore, I had to find a new way to feed myself and brush my hair and put on my clothes,” Paré said. “It was when I was learning to do those things that I was like, ‘Wait, maybe I can learn to paint again.’ So when I made these small successes, it just encouraged me to go onto the next thing.”

An obstacle like paralysis would be hard to overcome for anybody, but Paré does not let it restrict her.

“I try not to let my physical limitations limit what I do artistically, but realistically, sometimes it does,” Paré said. “Sometimes I feel a little stifled, but I still do what I can, and it’s still very important to my life.”