Creating art is something I can do without anyone's help. In fact, it's one of the very few things I can do by myself. What's important to me is the ability to control at least one thing in my life because of my severe limitations. Everything I do takes immense energy and endurance. Luckily for me, I am very stubborn, and my tenacity keeps me from giving up anything I feel is important.
I have spinal muscular atrophy 1 (SMA 1) and have long outlived my life expectancy. SMA 1 is manifested at birth, and a child with this form of muscular dystrophy usually doesn't reach age two. I will turn 62 this year.
Since I couldn't play with other kids easily, my mom would sit me outside with a pencil and paper. I must've already been a pretty good artist at four years old, because I drew a fly that was bugging me (no pun intended) and my mom could tell exactly what it was.
I used oils until I graduated from high school and then switched to watercolor. They didn't smell, and they were much easier to work with even though I had to create my own method of application. Physically I wasn't able to paint watercolor in the traditional manner, like wet-on-wet and large transparent layers. Instead I perfected a dry brush technique where I could cover large areas by using thousands of tiny brush strokes. It took me hours to complete a piece, but I'm happy to say I don't know of any other artwork like mine.
I decided to attend junior college. Majoring in art was a given until I started school. I had so much trouble with an art teacher convinced that I couldn't paint if I couldn't physically stretch my own canvases. I was extremely disappointed after taking so many prerequisites only to be told I couldn't take painting. What else would I do for possible employment? My dream was shattered.
When I transferred to the university, I changed my major to psychology. That didn't last very long because I changed it back to art the next semester. I knew in my heart I had to pursue something where I could be creative and express myself. Even if I didn't make it big in the art world, I could at least teach.
A friend of mine designed a tiny sleeve out of neoprene that slips over my finger and over the brush handle. I can paint by merely moving my finger. The results are the same as my usual work, and I can paint a little faster than I used to. As you move through life, remember there are ways to do everything you need to do to have a peaceful and productive existence.
Attending California State University, Fullerton was probably the best part of my life, and I would recommend this to everyone. The college environment was full of people who were either very educated or they wanted to be. I was treated like a regular person there. This feeling was even more noticeable when I was out in public and people would literally run into something while they were walking and straining to stare at me. College was the one place where I felt like I belonged.
After I received my Master's degree in 1981 I decided to do some part-time jobs on campus while I looked for art options. I worked in the Disabled Student Center reading tests for visually impaired students, illustrating a newsletter and writing some of the articles in it, running errands on campus and setting up appointments for student counselors. I even volunteered at several galleries. For someone with so many limitations, I handled lots of jobs and did them well.
Since being out of the college scene I have immersed myself in the art community, especially when I moved to Las Vegas in 1991. I've participated in hundreds of art shows, was the director of a major art group in southern Nevada and I started the Spirit of Art group with some fellow artists. Our goal is to keep art alive in the community, and every exhibit I curate for us includes some kind of benefit for a local charity.
As I age, my disability continues to decline and rob me of many abilities — but I will always find a way to paint. Art truly is in the mind, and fixing the physical part is easy.
About the Author
Karen Wheeler has Spinal Muscular Atrophy 1 and has been drawing since the age of four. She is currently the only surviving professional artist in Southern Nevada with a neuromuscular disease.
Most of her work is in watercolor and in 1981 Karen received a master's degree in art from California State University, Fullerton where she made watercolor her primary choice of medium. Her emphasis in graduate school was Illustration and she maintained a 4.0 grade point average.
Karen hides or places a rose in every painting completed after 1986 because it represents her in her work. Each painting takes Karen approximately 150 to 500 hours to complete. She now resides in Henderson, Nevada and currently has greeting cards on display throughout the West Coast.
Karen is involved with her group Spirit of Art and she enjoys arts and crafts, concerts, movie, animals of all kinds, art shows, and teaching.
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