Dan Keplinger was the subject and writer of the Academy Award-winning documentary King Gimp. which follows Dan’s life as he discovers his voice through art. In addition to an Oscar, the film also won a Peabody Award and was nominated for a national Emmy after airing on HBO.
In 2001, Dan was featured in a nationally acclaimed super bowl commercial for Cingular Wireless, promoting self-expression. USA Today ranked the commercial number one. Dan and Cingular were honored by Goodwill Industries with the Walter Knott Service Award for displaying outstanding humanitarian spirit. Dan’s participation in the commercial earned Cingular a TASH Image Award for exemplary achievement in media.
Since being in the media spotlight, Dan has become a national speaker sought out by diverse groups. He has been the keynote speaker for federal agencies, state agencies, corporations and disability organizations.
ABILITY first met Dan at the National TASH conference, in which he was a keynote speaker along with Laura San Giacomo of Just Shoot Me. TASH (The Action Starts Here!) is an international association of people with disabilities, their family members, other advocates, and professionals fighting for a society in which inclusion of all people in all aspects of society is the norm. TASH awarded Dan and Cingular Wireless with an Image Award for promoting positive images of people with disabilities.
The second time we met with Dan, he was being presented with the Walter Knott Service Award by Goodwill Industries of Orange County. In recognition of Walter Knott’s exemplary service to others, Goodwill created the award in order to honor significant persons or organizations for their humanitarian spirit. At the recent 23rd Annual Walter Knott Service Awards, Dan was honored along with a panel of nationally known disability advocates.
Walter Knott was the founder of Knott’s Berry Farm theme park in Buena Park, California. Chet Cooper and ABILITY’s Alicia Lopez spent an afternoon there trying to keep up with Dan’s appetite for the thrill-rides. Dan gave the park two thumbs up.
Chet Cooper: When did you know art was going to be such an important part of your life?
Dan Keplinger: I always liked and did art, but in high school my teacher started to give me the tools to have art say what I wanted it to. My art speaks what I would be saying with words. It also says the feel ings that are inside of me. Those feelings would make people close to me scared and worried about me. Maybe I want people to see these feelings, so they know everything is not happy in my world. Translating myself onto canvas became my language, something I needed to exist.
CC: How did you get involved in the making of King Gimp?
DK: When I was about 9, two documentarians decided to include me in their documentary about kids in the mainstream from different economic backgrounds. Even though I didn’t meet their criteria of being mainstreamed, I made the cut. I guess their first encounter with me made them realize I wasn’t an ordinary kid. So after the first documentary Beginning with Bong, Susan and Bill kept filming me. Then they took the idea to HBO and things avalanched from there.
CC: How has your life changed since winning an Academy Award?
DK: My artwork skyrocketed in the public eye. People are more willing to take time to understand me. I do not know if they now realize that I do have something to say, or if what I do say just blows them away. I have spent a year or more doing speaking tours talking to many different types of groups. Wherever I go people recognize me, particularly after I did the super bowl commercial. Inside I am still very much the same person, but it does feel good to be respected and appreciated for who I am. I hope that people who have seen King Gimp have gained this new awareness not only for me but for others who have physical disabilities.
CC: How much time do you spend on each painting?
DK: 1 spend about a week doing the actual painting. My way of painting has changed since the documentary was done. I still use the headstick for painting, but I now paint on un-stretched canvas that is at least 4×5 feet. My friends cut the canvas and mix all of my paints at once. I paint from photographs and spend a lot of time looking at my extensive collection of photographs to see if I have something that hits me. If I don’t. I take some more photos. If I still don’t get the hit-find the inspiration-I use photoshop to cut and paste photographs together to create my subject and get the tones, shadows and shapes that I desire. It’s kind of like setting up my own model or still life.
CC: What inspires you in picking a subject to paint?
DK: I just look for powerful feelings and emotions that give me a certain connection. My subjects have to have some connection with me, that can’t come from the outside world. I look for the abnormal in normal life.
CC: I see that you have painted several self-portraits. Have you gotten to know that subject fairly well?
DK: I do a lot of self-portraits to find out what is inside of me. I might pick the image of myself and the colors to use, but I do not know how it will translate on the canvas. I think of my self-portraits as a visual diary. I do about two portraits a year and you can really tell how I was feeling during that time by the painting. People that know me are troubled by my self-portraits, because they do not relate how happy I am in real life. I think my self-portraits are the only way I can say what I feel inside. It’s interesting that people can accept this in a painting but would probably be a bit freaked-out if I verbalized these feelings. The people who care about me would definitely start to worry. Have I gotten to know myself well through painting the self-portraits? I know I am reaching down very deep within myself to get these paintings, I still have a long way to go before I can say that I know myself.
CC: How can people see and buy your paintings?
DK: They can see and buy my work at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Soho New York. Even if the gallery is not showing my work, it is still available to view by request. There are photos of my paintings on the gallery web site.
CC: What is the average cost of your work?
DK: My paintings start at $5,000 and $7,500 and go up from there. I am also introducing a line of prints later this year that will be more affordable.
CC: What are the other things you like to do?
DK: I just like to hang out with friends and have a few drinks, or go see a local band and have a few beers. I do whatever my friends and I can think of; make dinners, cook-outs, movies, plays, go sit in woods and talk. Most of the time I’m the one that wants to keep going because I’m about the only one who is still single and does not have to go work at a 9-5 job. I also like to ski and do other physical things. I’m an adventure seeker and enjoy taking risks. I enjoy traveling and going to museums, meeting other artists and going to art shows.
CC: What are some of the more adventurous things that you have done?
DK: In the summertime, I go to see my friend Laura in Nantucket. One time Laura asked, “Do you want to try tubing?” When I said, “yes.” she called her friend with a 15-foot motor boat. When the day came, we packed up food and beer for the adventure. In case you’ve never done this: the victim, in this case me, is put into a tube which is attached to a rope and pulled through the water by a motor boat. The water around Nantucket can be pretty rough. It is the ocean and on this day the waves were big. They put a life jacket on me and then Laura lay across me to keep me on the tube. I only fell off once, but I did manage to somehow keep my head above the waves. Other adventures have been skiing with my friend Mike McGregor in Colorado and backpacking up a mountain-I was the back pack. (laughs) But these are the physical adventures…my entire life turns out to be a very unexpected adventure.
CC: What is something you would like to do that you haven’t done yet?
DK: I want to go bungie jumping and parachuting and find ways to defy gravity. Gravity has been my lifelong enemy. If I try to grab some thing, it falls over or falls to the ground. What if I could just float towards an object or it would float to me? I want to go up in a hot air balloon, feel weightless, or maybe fly a glider. I would like to feel sensations of fluid motion. I search for ways to feel speed and motion-floating or blasting with energy. These are all forms of motion I can’t do myself. So, I need to find ways that I can experience them without my body participating. Look up in the sky one day and I’ll be there on a specially designed pair of wings moving gracefully through the air-there will be a smile on my face. (laughs)
CC: What was your experience in school like?
DK: In college, I still did not have much of a social life until my third
year when I met Karen. I was and still am a cool geek. I always kept to myself and did my work. This did not mean that I didn’t have opinions and thoughts about everything that was going on around me. My mind is a super sponge, always thirsty for more information. I think my thirst is greater than most people when it comes to finding out about the world. So while others were socializing-I was exploring.
My mother always knew when I had to write papers. I would ask her to pick a six pack up for me. Then I would just sit in my room play my music and write papers. I always got my work done, but papers took me much longer to do than other people. Sometimes, I would wish that a device could be invented that I could attach to my head that would just translate: what was in my brain onto a piece of paper. It would be a lot easier than doing it letter by letter with a headstick.
Now that I’m working on my second art degree, it is not a student-teacher relationship, but rather an adult, people to people relationship that I have with the faculty. This is easier. I’ve gotten to know a few grad students. They see me working in the classroom and whisper, “break time.” I have a beer, while they smoke. Then, I go back to work.
CC: What are your future goals?
DK: I plan to keep painting to see where it ends up. Hopefully, it won’t end especially if I keep taking art classes to get new ideas for my art. I don’t know if I really want to earn my art degrees because they work you so hard. But I feel a personal need to get the stimulation from the classes. I know that I will always want to take a few classes each year for my own personal knowledge and use. I proved to myself that I could get a college degree so I don’t need to prove it again. I might do some more writing, or appear in more films if the part is right.
For more information on subjects mentioned within this article
Phyllis Kind Gallery
phone: 212 925 1200 fax: 212 941 7841
136 Greene Street, New York 10012