Quadriplegic Artist Learns To Paint By Mouth: “You Have To Dare Yourself To Try”

Antonio Davis Harlem Fine Arts Show

HFAS Chicago 2016, Photography by LeVern A. Danley III

The path to Antonio Davis’ current success may be rooted in a tragedy but ends in triumph.  Growing up in Chicago, Davis was an outstanding basketball player, was pursued by teams from an early age, and he loved math. But his abiding passion was art; he loved drawing and painting even as a child, an interest his family encouraged. For a time, he pursued that passion, even studying graphic design at the city’s Prosser Vocational High School.

But as Davis himself admits “life happened” and he lost interest in art. In 1994, he sustained a gunshot wound to the chest that left him a quadriplegic. Despite no longer being able to walk, he was even more devastated that he’d lost the use of his hands. Moving to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab) in 1996, Davis found that in addition to the usual physical therapy, the facility also offered art therapy. One of his friends encouraged him to explore drawing again, to heal his body and mind.

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“I was introduced to occupational therapy at the Institute,” says Davis. “They encourage you to use your brain and your mind to help focus on things other than your injury.” At that time, Davis was focused on regaining enough movement in his hands to allow him to do his art, but that turned out not to be an option. Later he went to a nursing home where he continued to try painting in the ‘normal way.’ It was there that he met his now wife Juanita Butler Davis, and the two found an apartment together in 1997. Having the stability of a permanent home, Davis began pursuing his art again in earnest.

During a visit to a ‘disability expo,’ he met mouth painter, Robert Thome, of the Mouth & Foot Painters Association (MFPA), who inspired and encouraged Davis to develop his skills as a mouth painter. With Thome’s encouragement, Davis attended the Illinois Institute of Art where he studied multimedia, web design, life drawing, color theory, and 3D modeling. Most importantly he began to paint.