Mouth Painter Gives Disabled Artist’s Workshop Designed to Motivate
By Courtney Blackburn
Just hours ago, Pasadena’s Kidspace Children’s Museum hosted an artist like no other: quadriplegic mouth-painter Mariam Paré.
Paralyzed as a 20-year-old college student by a gunshot wound to her neck, Mariam had dreamed of a career making art. It was in college working towards her degree that she was caught in the crossfire of senseless gang violence which left her with a severed spinal cord, no use of her legs, and limited use of her upper extremities.
During years of rehabilitation learning to re-do things most of us take for granted, a therapist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago taught Mariam to hold a pencil in her mouth to write her name. This single lesson exposed Mariam to a new possible way of painting. If she could control a pencil in this way, then why not a paintbrush? With earnest determination, she soon began teaching herself again how to paint using her mouth.
At Kidspace on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, Mariam spoke about why a mentality of “Self Help – Not Charity” is empowering when overcoming tragedies, how art can be therapeutic for kids and adults alike, and how anyone can rebuild when life takes an unexpected turn. She was joined by fellow Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artist Cindi Bernhardt of West Covina. Mariam said of her positive attitude, “Time helps. Time heals.” Trust her, she knows.
But first, the kids had to try their “mouths” at painting. At 11 a.m. sharp, dozens of eager children sat down in the humid courtyard behind Kidspace and painted. Red, blue, green, yellow, and every mix of color in between covered tables, canvases, and hands. After, children, parents, and local news reporters eagerly watched Mariam paint an ethereal female face.
After her session with Kidspace, Mariam headed to Toronto for the next stop on her seven-city North American tour.
Since her birth on an army base in Morocco to a Marine Sergeant and his Moroccan wife, and through her childhood in the United States, Mariam’s passion for art shone. Her family knew she was born to be an artist. Even life-shattering bullets couldn’t change that.
Mariam began to practice drawing with her mouth every day. She called the experience “extremely humbling.” She struggled with stick figures, when mere months before her talented hand could paint realistic portraits. From her own web biography, “But she felt all the knowledge was still inside of her, wanting to be expressed. To Mariam, suddenly feeling the full weight of her limitations that first year with paralysis, it felt like a miracle that she still had the ability to do one thing she loved most – to paint – even if in a new and unusual way. The gratitude and joy she felt from re-establishing that ability pushed her onward and gave her hope in the midst of an otherwise uncertain future.”
With determination and strength from her family, Mariam persisted. She got her art degree, along with a graphic design associate’s and web designer certification, and joined the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA)—she’s now an ambassador for the 800-strong group. In 2011 she joined the Associate Board of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago where she promotes art therapy. In 2012, Mariam expanded into the world of non-profit as a founding member of STEAM Studios, an organization that provides world-class arts education to under-served Chicago communities in innovative, and earth friendly (green) arts facilities. Mariam even met James Bond–Pierce Brosnan–when he learned about work and invited her to his Malibu California home—and you never would have known, by the skill and artistry of the James Bond paintings she gave him, that she had ever lost use of her talent.
Nearly 20 years after her violent injury in 1996, painting by mouth has become second nature for Mariam. She exhibits her work in galleries both nationally and locally as well as in numerous private collections. She works prolifically from her home studio in suburban Chicago producing exceptional artwork in traditional oil and modern mixed media techniques. She teaches and gives hope to artists, children, and humans everywhere.