(Editor’s note: this story originally appeared in United Disability Services’ Kaleidoscope magazine. It is republished with permission.)
Not many people perch precariously on the threshold between life and death. At the young age of 21, when most people feel they have their whole life in front of them, Mariam Paré was living in darkness with the lights off and the door closed, contemplating suicide. She had decided she would stop eating and drinking. She wanted to die. In the midst of this despair, somehow, she had an epiphany. She realized she had a choice. She could choose to live.
Paré was born in Kenitra, Morocco. She came to the United States with her parents and her older brother when she was not quite 2 years old. Growing up, she was surrounded by people who used their time and imagination to make things—sewing, crocheting, photographing and sculpting things from found objects. At a young age she began expressing herself with pen and paper by drawing portraits of family members as well her house and other objects. People were surprised by her talent. She liked the attention, was encouraged by their compliments, and proud of what she was able to do.
In school, art was always her favorite class, and the art teacher was always her favorite teacher. By the time she reached high school, she stood out as having talent and potential. As a result, the school created classes for her that weren’t in the regular curriculum and she worked independently with teachers on various projects. She knew then that she wanted to pursue art as a vocation.
After one year of college, with art as her major, she was living in San Francisco and felt like she was in a bit of a rut, so she decided to get out of town for a while and take a break from everything. She went to Richmond, Va., for a couple of weeks to visit a former boyfriend, John, who was now a good friend. Early one evening they borrowed his mom’s car and Paré was driving while he was in the passenger seat giving her directions. It was a Thursday night, they were listening to music, it was raining, barely drizzling, and they were stopped at an intersection when she suddenly heard a popping noise. The car windows broke and she says, “I saw a flash, felt a shock in my body, heat in the back of my neck, and then I just dropped limp.”
Someone had been on the street corner shooting a gun at their car, the car behind them, and surrounding properties. One of the bullets penetrated the back of their car, passed through the headrest, entered the back of her spine, and slipped right in between vertebrae C5 and C6, rendering her paralyzed instantly. She was an innocent, seemingly random, victim of gun violence. Although Paré remembers seeing people sitting on their porches as she drove down the street, when questioned by police, no one claimed to have seen anything. The shooter was never found.
Paré had never heard the word “quadriplegia” before and in the hospital she struggled to make sense of this cruel twist of fate. Shot? How could this happen? What did she do wrong? Who did this to her? Why? The unanswered questions plagued her.
As soon as he heard what happened, her father immediately drove to Richmond to be by her side and he stayed with her for three months while she was in ICU. Once her condition stabilized, she was flown by air bus to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (the No. 1 institute for spinal cord rehabilitation in the world, fortunately located in the city where her father lived). She spent five months there, relearning how to do simple things she had taken for granted. She never went back to her apartment in San Francisco. This was her new life.
The bullet remains lodged in her spine because removing it would have killed her and, she says, “For the first year after my injury I was replaying everything in my head. Regretting. Second-guessing. Blaming. Not being able to be mad at anybody—not knowing who did this to me. It made me very depressed. It was very hard.”
She was suicidal and didn’t want to live but somehow, inexplicably, she suddenly realized she had a choice. She could die in her own misery or she could begin to live again and move forward. “I don’t really know what made the change, but it happened pretty quickly. I think that I was so sick of being sad about it. I was so sick of being mad at this person. I was making it harder on myself by not letting go. At some point I realized, I don’t have to care about this anymore. It doesn’t matter if this person knows because it’s not going to change my situation. Being angry about my loss isn’t going to change the reality. I might as well stop being angry. I need to stop being depressed. I’m hurting no one but myself. That’s when I started painting again.”
The artist says, “Learning to live with a disability is all about learning to do things a different way.” She started getting out of bed every day, asked people to set up an easel, and began painting with a brush in her mouth. She was an artist before the injury and says painting “became the thing that helped drag me out of this hole.” She came to realize, “this thing that use to be me—it is still me.”
Painting with a brush in her mouth was actually easier than having a brush strapped to her hand. She was right-handed prior to her injury and lost all use of her right hand. She has minimal use of her left hand but painting with it was awkward, difficult, and tiring. She says, “Your head is balanced. It is in the middle of your body. You can hold tightly and you can actually hold softly; I can’t do all the same things that I could with my hands. I can’t reach very far. I can’t do certain strokes that would take the flick of a wrist, but at the same time I’ve developed my own techniques.” She began painting with oils because they are slow to dry and forgiving. “As a mouth painter, losing the ability to paint quickly made me stay away from acrylics.”
After a year of painting on her own, she decided to go back to college and pursue a degree in fine art. Teachers could explain things like color theory, anatomy and life drawing, but they really couldn’t help her with technique. The nuances of mouth painting were learned independently over time because there are no instructional books or videos on the subject. In addition to her formal education as an oil painter, she earned degrees in graphic design and web design. She designed her own website (www.mariampare.com) and uses her computer to do preliminary compositions, noting that computers are great tools for people with disabilities.
Broadening her scope
It took several years of practice, patience and perseverance but she has broadened the scope of what she thought was possible after her injury. In 2006 she was accepted as a member of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA), an exclusive association of professional artists who paint with either their mouth or their feet. She was amazed to learn about the organization and find out that there were other people out there doing what she was doing. “With their stipends and scholarships, I was able to focus on my art. They are such a great organization for what they do to empower people like myself.”
In 2010, the artist became an associate board member of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago where she helps coordinate fundraisers for their art therapy program and promotes awareness about the benefits of art therapy. Art in Motion is a yearly fundraiser where novice artists with disabilities show their work along with professional artists to raise awareness and support the program that was so beneficial to her. This year she created a special body of work for the show—a series of seven paintings to represent what paralysis feels like, but she has intentionally made the series ambiguous so viewers can interpret it in their own way.
A few of the paintings are posted on her website, and there you can see clouds tied to ropes unable to float freely, someone buried up to her chest in sand, and birds tied to rocks, unable to soar. The last two pieces are more emotional and graphic, and of the series she says, “It might not be my best or most colorful work, but I think it is work that for me, as an artist, I needed to do to work things out.”
“Heavy” is one image from the series that debuted at Art in Motion this year. The image, in its simplicity, powerfully depicts the weight of the struggle. Responses to the series were encouraging and she says, “The best part was hearing different interpretations and emotions they evoked. It has given me some new courage to keep doing the imagery that I’m passionate about.” She had 14 paintings on display this year and sold every piece that was available for purchase.
Paré is also a founding member of STEAM Studios (www.steamstudioschicago.com), a nonprofit organization providing arts education and mentoring to marginalized, underserved people of the greater Chicago area, including inner city kids and people with disabilities. She has partnered with two other artists and a social worker to deliver innovative, cutting edge, earth-friendly arts options, including glass blowing, painting, drawing and sculpture. They have been renting space for two years and are excited that they will soon have enough funding to purchase their own building—an inclusive space for people to create, learn, and grow.
Although she stayed away from acrylics initially, she has been working with them for the past two years and says, “I found tricks to get around the drying time. There are special palettes that help keep my paint wet and there are things you can put on the paint to make it blend easier. Now that I’ve rediscovered acrylics, I’ve changed the way I paint and my portraits seem to have more color and they are more vibrant.”
Always trying new things, she cannot possibly limit herself to one medium, a favorite color, or particular genre. She works with oils, acrylics, photography, digital art, multi-media, video, and the list goes on. She is a prolific artist who is now able to support herself financially with her art. “It has been a huge accomplishment for me to be able to make a living doing the thing that I originally set out to do in life.” Her studio is in her home, with custom-made tables so her wheelchair can fit underneath. It is the small, creative space where she finds joy in being able to do what she loves. She enjoys listening to instrumental or classical music while she paints but has recently started listening to audio books. “I love to read but it is hard to find time to do everything so this way I can do two things at once.”
She is currently working on a series of portraits of artists with disabilities. So far, she has completed paintings of Chuck Close and Frida Kahlo. She says Chuck Close has been her inspiration. As an artist, he was faced with the same question she faced—how do you paint when you can’t use your fingers? She could relate to his life experiences and it motivated her to see his success.
Her paintings are inspired at times by beautiful combinations of color that spark a particular image in her mind. Other times they are driven by what she is feeling. Sometimes she works through emotional issues with her art, which is what she did when she created some pieces relating to gun violence. “It took a lot of years for me to get comfortable with having that dialogue in my work.”
Reveca Torres, co-founder of Backbones (www.backbonesonline.com), put together an art show featuring the work of four artists with spinal cord injuries titled “Unbroken.” Paré was one of the artists featured in the show and says it was the first time she had shown any work relating to gun violence. “The show had an amazing review, and people were really moved by it. I was encouraged to continue doing work that is kind of personal. I stayed away from it for so long because it was a touchy subject. As artists we record our lives, the things that we feel, and the things we’ve been through. That’s what the show was about.”
Torres had worked with her on another exhibit before asking her to be a part of the “Unbroken” show and says, “Everyone loved her pieces in the show and were really impacted by the story they told. They were very thought-provoking.”
The pair have become friends and Torres says, “She is one of the most talented people I’ve met. She is highly detail-oriented and understands how art, even in the small subtleties, can have an impact on people. I love how her brain works and how she sees things! I think we feed off each other’s ideas and work well together.” They are now working on a photography project to inject disability culture into famous iconic imagery. They will be remaking famous paintings with photos of people who have disabilities in an effort to change perceptions of what beauty is as well as the perceptions some may have about people with disabilities, and disability culture.
The last two years have proved to be very successful for the artist. She’s appeared on numerous local news shows and was invited to be on ABC’s talk show, Katie, with Katie Couric in 2013. Last year she had the opportunity to meet Pierce Brosnan. She had painted two portraits of the actor and when he saw them he contacted MFPA because he wanted to meet her. As a result, he graciously flew her out to his home in Malibu, Calif., where she spent the day with him. The actor revealed to her that he is also an artist who has experienced tragedy—losing his wife and daughter—and her work really resonated with him. She gave him one of the portraits she had painted of him, and a few weeks after she returned home from the visit he sent her a lithograph of one of his paintings. “Now he has one of my paintings and I have one of his.”
She will be going on a media tour with MFPA in September, making numerous stops across the country, and one stop will be in Los Angeles. They hope to be able to make arrangements to for Paré and Brosnan to reconnect as a part of the tour.
March 28, 2015 was the 19th anniversary of her injury. Her father came to spend some time with her that day and reflecting on the past he asked, “Remember when we didn’t know what the future would hold?” They both had doubts about the quality of life she would have. Paré says, “It was so satisfying to be able to sit with him all these years later and say, ‘Wow, Dad, we did it.’”
She’s come a long way but she is far from finished. “I’ve learned that life is short and there’s no excuse not to go out and do the things you love to do,” she says. “There’s no good excuse not to follow your passion because I think that’s where real happiness comes from. I think that is what my whole journey represents. Life is hard but you can make your own way.”
She’s an articulate, brave, wildly imaginative woman and an exceptional artist who has chosen to create a colorful, vibrant life. A short film documentary titled “PARÉ,” was created by Myra V. Casciato to briefly share the artist’s story and her unique talent. The video (below) received the Audience Choice Award at the Columbia Film Festival.
Whether it is through her art, public speaking, advocacy, or simply in the way she lives her life, she hopes to change perceptions about what is possible and encourage people to chart their own course, doing things they love to do. So many years ago, with a paintbrush in her mouth, she made a choice—and then she painted brush stroke after brush stroke until she’d painted a smile back on her face. A genuine, radiant, beautiful smile, eagerly anticipating what’s yet to come.
Painter Mariam Paré, life was transformed through an unexpected and tragic turn of events more than 15 years ago. At a crossroads that could have ended her artistic career, Mariam’s story is about reinventing herself and living life without limitations.
Columbia College Chicago Take1 Film Festival Audience Award