Paintings pack the studio walls, shelves and desks in the Naperville apartment of professional artist Mariam Paré. A couple dozen of her "chewed up" paintbrushes lie next to oil paint dollops of bright yellows, blues and reds. The 37-year-old artist adds strokes of a golden brown to the background of a still life on her main easel. A second easel holds a portrait of a comfy old white dog.
"A lot of this is not finished, so don't judge me," Paré says with a laugh.
When she was 20, a gunshot nearly finished Paré. The bullet tore into the flesh between her shoulder blades, lodged in her spine, robbed her of the ability to move her arms and legs, and threatened to take away forever her art that she loved since she was a little girl.
"At Christmas, I'd always get paints and pencils. I was always drawing," she remembers. "I loved it."
Born in Morocco while her Vietnam veteran Marine father Manny Paré was stationed as a guard at the U.S. embassy in Kenitra, Mariam Paré was 11 years old when she moved to Naperville with her dad after her parents' divorce. She excelled in her art classes at Jefferson Junior High, Naperville North High School and the College of DuPage, often winning awards.
"I ran out of art classes I could take," Paré says. She moved to San Francisco with some girlfriends and worked in an art shop and waitressed while she applied to fine arts schools.
Accepted into the San Francisco Art Institute for classes beginning in fall 1996, Paré took a break that spring to visit a friend in Virginia. Speeding tickets had cost her friend his driver's license, so Paré was behind the wheel of his mother's car at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 28, as they drove along a residential street in the city of Richmond.
"It's etched in my memory," says Paré, recalling how she thought it seemed strange to drive past a crowd of more than 20 people standing outside in the rain. As she pulled up to a stop sign, she heard the gun.
"I didn't even know it was gunshots. It was just pop, pop, pop, pop, and then I went limp," she says. She remembers feeling a flash of heat and a sensation similar to an electric shock as one bullet passed through a door and her headrest before reaching her spinal cord.
"I remember seeing my hands fall off the steering wheel into my lap," she says. That final movement almost signaled the end of her life.
"They called my family and said, 'You've got to get here because she's not going to live through the night,'" Paré says. Her father, remembering how he delivered the girl into the world when his pregnant wife, Fatima, could not make it to the hospital, "drove straight there" overnight from Naperville to be with his daughter. The next day, doctors told her she was a quadriplegic, who would live with the bullet remaining in her spine.
"I'm not from here. Nobody's mad at me. Nobody wants to shoot me," she remembers telling police. No witnesses came forward. No arrests were made. No one provided a motive.
"I used to be really angry about that. I wanted something to be angry at. I didn't have the luxury of knowing why," Paré says. "I used to obsess about it. I wanted to find that person and show them what they did to my life."
After three months in the hospital, she flew home in a special air ambulance to begin her recovery at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. That's when she decided to stop focusing on who shot her, why it happened to her, and how easily things could have been different.
"Wondering isn't going to change that reality," Paré says. "I just made the decision to stop looking backward, and look forward to what I could do."
Initially, those prospects looked "very bleak," her dad remembers.
"I did think my dream of being a professional artist was over. I thought I'd never have any friends, never be in a relationship, never be able to work. One of my fears was that I'd never have a boyfriend again," remembers Paré. Her first attempt to recapture her artistic talent by using a supporting brace on her left hand failed.
"It was so bad. It was like stick figures," she says, explaining how she has limited movement of that arm and can't move the fingers or wrist.
When therapists suggested she write words by using a pen in her mouth, "I discovered that my handwriting is the same with my mouth as when I'd write with my hand," Paré says. "My signature is the same. It's inside you."
Same with art ability. "Oh, I'm onto something here," she remembers thinking the first time she held a brush in her mouth. "I just kept trying and trying."
And getting better and better.
"My friends were very encouraging," Paré says, recalling how they'd ask her to draw them things. "I really appreciate my friends for doing that for me early on."
Through mutual friends from high school and earlier, she met Tracy Kirchmann, a fellow Naperville North graduate who took art classes with Paré at the College of DuPage and remains a close friend.
"As cliché as it sounds, I don't think about Mariam being in a wheelchair very often," says Kirchmann, who teaches glass sculpture at The Little Black Pearl in Chicago. "She is an extraordinarily talented artist, and it was just her finding the adaptive measures so she could paint with her mouth."
Living in her apartment at the Illinois Independent Center, where an aide helps her every morning and night, Paré returned to the College of DuPage. By 2008, she had received associate degrees in fine arts, web development and graphic arts.
Her painting by mouth is "mostly self-taught," she says. "Like all art, it's a lifelong learning process."
She finds commercial success with the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (mfpausa.com), an international for-profit association owned and run by artists who paint with brushes held in their mouths or feet as a result of a disability sustained at birth or through an accident or illness.
"People think because we're disabled it's a charity, but it's legitimate," Paré says. "We're artists, and this is how we make our living."
Artwork is reviewed by a panel of artists and only those artists deemed worthy are granted full membership. Many of Paré's best works are in Lichtenstein, at the world headquarters for the MFPA, which chose her "Christmas Baubles" still life of ornaments with white candles as one of the holiday cards on sale through its website. Paré sells more work though her mariampare.com website.
Would she be painting the same pieces if her injury had never happened?
"Maybe," she says. "It just would take me a lot less time."
Maneuvering the paintbrush in her mouth for as long as five hours a day and allowing time for the oil paint to dry, Paré says a complex painting might take her five months to complete. An abstract painting of figures called "Warm Bodies" she painted in high school dominates one wall in her living room. She jokes that large paintings are "neck-breakers" now because she has to paint them with her mouth. Even for a medium-size painting, Paré does half and then has an aide turn the canvas upside down so she can paint the rest.
Since her injury, she's been on many dates, socializes with a wide group of friends and currently is in a serious relationship.
Using her left hand to move the joystick on her electric wheelchair, Paré easily moves from project to project in her apartment. An aide squeezes paint onto her palette. Paré uses a strap on the doorknob to open her door, and uses her nose to answer her cellphone and text.
"Did you see my thing?" she says, not waiting for an answer before returning with her "mouth stick," an ergonomic stylus, which she fits into her mouth and uses to type on the computer and replace some of the fine motor skills she lost.
"I play Jenga with this," Paré says, referring to a game that requires players to delicately remove small wooden pieces without knocking down a tower. "I can beat my able-bodied friends. I like changing people's minds about disabled people."
Whether it's art, friendship, games or life, "she's always trying to be a better person," says Kirchmann. "That's the coolest part about her."
In the early days of her mouth painting, "I felt underestimated by everyone," Paré says. While she collects Social Security disability insurance benefits, Paré says she feels as if she is close to being independent. In addition to selling her art, she gives private art lessons. Katie Couric promised to buy a painting of row boats Paré worked on while appearing on Couric's TV show. Vivacious and outgoing, Paré starting doing speaking gigs after her wheelchair rolled into Lake Michigan during the summer of 1998, and she delivered an eloquent speech on behalf of her rescuers.
The traumas of her near death, her injury, her near drowning and the suicide last month of her older brother, Gary, a former wrestling champion in high school, all leave a mark on her.
"Good things have come from the darkest moments," she says. "I've had a lot of opportunities, and I'm trying to make the most out of it."
Her art, which often features rich colors and peaceful nature scenes, reflects her attitude. She designs websites and does animation ("Those I do for fun, because I'm kind of corny that way," she says), but a painter is who she is.
"I love nature. I love the challenge of a still life with light and mood," Paré says. "I do like to paint things that instill happiness and joy into people."