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The Art of Therapy : Health: Disabled artists use painting to help other disabled people and rehabilitation patients regain their confidence.


Two-and-a-half months ago, Larry Cooper was wheeled into the San Diego Rehabilitation Institute flat on his back. A Mexican bus on a barren central Baja highway had plowed into his Chevy Suburban, breaking his neck.

He can't walk. He has no muscle ability in his right hand and almost no wrist control in his left.

On Friday, he painted a watercolor clown with a green nose, a receding hairline and tiny ears.

He did it by himself, with no help from the mechanical contraption that he thought he needed to make his hands work.

"I didn't even think I could pick up a pencil and draw. I thought, 'I've got to go upstairs and get my adaptive device,' " Cooper, 41, said. "Then I just started drawing."

He did, however, get some conceptual guidance.

"OK. You've got to have an eyeball in your eye," artist Robert Thome told workshop participants at the rehabilitation institute. "You want to make lips. You don't want to just have a line."

Creative license was encouraged.

"Some people have got really huge ears," Thome offered. "You can do that if you want." Cooper went with really small ears instead, but Thome liked that too.

"You should take a figure drawing class," he told Cooper, who gets out of the institute in 12 days to begin a new life--wheelchair-bound for now, but pushing every day to master new tasks. He even plans to get recertified as a scuba diver.

Thome, a dark ponytail hidden under his straw hat and an artists' sketch pad tucked beneath his wheelchair, guided about a dozen disabled workshop participants--most of them inpatients at the institute--through the basics of "the face" on Friday.

For 11 years, he has worked with the Artability Artists' Assn., a group of accomplished disabled artists who have sold and displayed their work across the country. They also teach others. How to paint. How to vent a little emotion on paper. How to overcome the myriad barriers that make them feel helpless.

The association, sponsored by the San Diego Rehabilitation Institute and always seeking new members, will host two workshops a month. The workshops are free and open to anyone with disabilities. Members--including Thome--will show their work and demonstrate their techniques in Balboa Park today as part of Summerfest Community Awareness Day.

Faces feature prominently in Thome's own work--bold mixtures of pastels, watercolors and acrylics that he paints holding a stylus in his mouth. A 1969 football accident left him a quadriplegic.

He hadn't quite turned 16, and though he had been a strong artist before the accident, it took 10 years of deep depression before he tried to practice his gift with his mouth. Now he wants to pass that gift on, he said.

"I was terrible in the beginning, but it opened such a door for me," Thome said. "I kept working at it." Thome, with the encouragement of his wife, helped found the Artability Artists' Assn. in the Inglewood area, where they were sponsored until the San Diego institute took over about two years go. Thome is also a member of the International Mouth and Foot Painters, which sells cards and calenders in 23 countries.

"It's weird," Thome said. "If I hadn't gotten hurt, there's no way I would have ended up an artist. A lot of artists do not make it. I was put in a position where I could focus and teach other people."

But turning to art as therapy or craft is by nature introspective, Thome said, and for a person recently traumatized, that can be difficult.

"The biggest obstacle in my life when I first started was myself," he said.

"It's a great way to try to express yourself," said Ross Gore, a 59-year-old El Centro man who rolled his truck in February. Now he is trying to overcome a leg and arm injury and speech difficulty caused by the accident.

Gore had never painted before Friday.

"I'm surprised at how easy it comes," he said, glancing at his soulful clown, which Thome likened to a Marc Chagall, and Cooper likened to Abe Lincoln.

"It's good therapeutically and emotionally," Cooper said, his 14-year-old daughter, Erin, peering over his shoulder. "It's just showing you that you can do anything that you try to do."

While Cooper said he doubts he would seriously pursue art (both of his parents are accomplished artists), Friday's session led him to discoveries about his own mobility.

Although he has no working muscle in his right hand, he found he could grip a pencil using only his flexing wrist to control his thumb and finger. Then he signed his clown face--slowly and carefully--"before somebody steals it and sells it," he joked.

His signature, a bit shaky but clear, was the best he'd ever done, even with his adaptive hand device, he said.

Cooper's wife, who was sleeping in the back seat of the Chevy when the accident occurred and escaped with only a cut, is staying in a nearby motel while Cooper undergoes rehabilitation. The family had sold their house in Idaho and were headed to their house in Los Bariles, Mexico, when their lives were drastically altered.

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