Art – Mouth and Foot Painters

In many ways, 49 year-old Robert Thome is your ideal success story. He has worked hard at his craft. networked with the right people and fulfilled his dream of becoming a successful painter and sculptor while making a very good living from it. Yet Thome is not your traditional overachiever.

At age 15, Thome was playing preseason football at Pioneer High School near Los Angeles when he broke two vertebrae in his neck. The accident left him paralyzed from the neck down and Thome’s dreams of an education, having a family and being an artist were shattered Since he was planning to attend college on an athletic scholarship he now imagined a new future: helpless. lonely and dependent upon social security checks instead of paychecks. During a year-long recovery at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, a facility which specializes in treating quadriplegia. Thome had to learn to do everything differently, using a mouth stick to perform even the most menial tasks. His first thoughts when he realized he had quadriplegia were, “When you’re a quad. you’re not left with any choices.”

Fortunately, Thome had a strong spirit that wouldn’t let him believe he was left with no abilities or choices in life. Thome’s rehabilitation was physically grueling and even more emotionally draining. With hard work and a renewed zeal, he became proficient in using the mouth stick and gained the opportunity to paint again, “It became my new arm. I had a brief flicker that the only thing limiting me was my imagination.” Then reality hit and Thome was plagued by feelings of depression and worthlessness. For the next few years he drifted with a hope lessness that nobody close to him could fathom. He says, “I was heading toward that dead end, and I knew it.” The downward spiral lasted until he met Kathy, the person who would change his life.

In 1980, Thome was majoring in Psychology and Chicano Studies at the University of California at Riverside. Enter Kathy, a single mother with two children. Thome remembers Kathy being the first person to look past his disability; thirty days later they became engaged and married soon after. About meeting and marrying Kathy, Thome says, “That’s when I knew that God is real.”

Even with a renewed purpose, Thome had a challenging road ahead of him living and working in a society that was complicated and deluded in its attitude toward people with disabilities. Kathy says, “Robert knew he want ed to paint from the time he was five, but then the dis ability got in his way. To me it didn’t matter; he was everything I wanted in a person: kind, intelligent and caring. He just happened to use a chair.” With Kathy as his muse, Thome returned to painting and began exhibiting his art. Although he experienced some local success in California, he longed for more.

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In 1984, Thome met Jean Michalski, a gifted artist and member of an organization called the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA), an international, for-profit association wholly owned and operated by artists with disabilities to help them meet their financial needs. Members paint with brushes held in their mouths or feet as a result of disabilities that prohibit them from using their hands. MFPA was founded in 1956 by Erich Stegmann, a mouth painter and polio survivor. The innovative organization reproduces paintings by artists with disabilities in the form of cards, calendars, jigsaw puzzles and books. Thome comments on the success of MFPA, “What makes the organization so self-sustaining and financially vital is its structure. All the proceeds from our work are reinvested in the artists.” He adds. “The more we sell, the more we make. Artists are dependent on one another for their income. We are all accountable. There’s no back stabbing, no ego bruising. We support each other as a matter of pride and because it’s good business.”

MFPA opens the door for a community of exceptionally talented individuals that have no avenue or outlet to share their gifts and become recognized for their abilities. “MFPA offers a standard of quality I really respect,” Thome notes. “[Having a disability] does not gain you entry into the organization. Members have to be the best at what they do.” Thome should know because one of his major disappointments was receiving a rejection letter from MFPA. He remembers, “They said I had talent, but needed more work. I was pretty crushed. It took encouragement from Jean and Kathy and the guts to re-apply to eventually gain membership. Everything that followed was a gift.”

Today. Thome is the head of a successful family and business. His wife and daughter coordinate his exhibitions and speaking engagements and he travels the world exhibiting his paintings. He is known throughout Europe and Asia and his work is catching on stateside. Having also recently purchased a new home complete

with large backyard and swimming pool, Thome is living the American dream.

Giving back is what sustains his success, so Thome will continue to tell his story throughout the country. “When I go out into the community, I try to leave a message of hope. You can do anything you want in life.” be tells kids, “but you have to be smart about it.

“I show them how I paint with my mouth, and I know they’ll remember me as long as they live.” he adds. It’s hard to forget a man cultivating his art through fierce determination and sheer talent.

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Thome mentors fellow MFPA artists and teaches art at youth and adult schools, universities and other community organizations. He is a founding member of the Artability Artist Association, a group of artists with disabilities who teach at the San Diego Rehabilitation Center.

In 1997 Thome won the Governor’s Trophy, an award presented to individuals who excel in their profession and in their community. The award is also the highest honor given to a Californian with a disability. Thome’s honors also include Mainstream Milestones “Award of Extraordinary Achievement” given by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and an induction into the California Hall of Fame in 1996.

On May 1, 2003, Thome presented his portrait of Al Gore to the former Vice President during MFPA’s North American Artist Conference and International Art Exhibition in Atlanta. Today his work is owned by luminaries including Jimmy Carter, Joan Rivers and California’s first lady, Maria Shriver.

Thome notes that MFPA is one of the few organizations that truly empowers its members. “It took my disability for me to focus on the qualities that would allow me to be a successful artist who could support a family and be truly happy with my life,” he says. “I got to grab the brass ring…and make a living through my art. If I hadn’t experienced what I experienced, I know I wouldn’t be here today. I would never be as truly blessed as I am.”

MFPA was founded in 1956 by German artist A.E. Stegmann to provide an independent living for artists without use of their hands. Today, MFPA includes more than six hundred members in seventy-seven countries with fifty-three members based in the United States.

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