Palate to Palette

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: People Issue: February 2013
Group Free

Born with a condition that limits use of his arms and legs, “mouth painter” Kirk O’Hara has to be creative both on and off the canvas.

Artist Kirk O’Hara leans forward, adding the finishing touches to a painting of a blond boy wearing leg braces and gripping crutches. Next to the boy is a brown dog, tongue out and tail wagging. The dog is in a wheelchair. As O’Hara makes a stroke through the boy’s hair, his face hovers so close to the canvas he’s almost cheek-to-cheek with his subject. For a second, it looks like he’s going to crawl head-first into the painting. In a sense, he’s already there: Like the boy and his dog, O’Hara is disabled. This painting is the first in a series of handicapped subjects titled Empathy.

PHOTO by Sam Nalven

The Mesa-based artist was born with arthrogryposis, a disabling condition characterized by permanent shortening of the muscles and joints that denies him use of his arms and legs. He gets around in a wheelchair and does almost everything with his head and neck, from gripping long sticks between his teeth to flipping light switches on and off to headbutting the mouse next to his laptop to halt his screen saver. He paints using only his mouth, and he’s very good at it – his striking, lifelike paintings hang in local galleries including the Lost Leaf in Phoenix and Muralt’s Custom Jewelers in Mesa, and he’s also done national commercial work. An image of him clutching a paintbrush between his teeth, adding details to a painting of a skeleton guzzling hot sauce, adds flair to his business card.

“Kirk’s created a new style with his art. It’s very unique. I search for people who are masters in their medium, and he is. His tones and colors really match what we try to do,” says Matt Muralt of Muralt’s Custom Jewelers, which specializes in art deco and art nouveau pieces. “I think he’s like a Van Gogh or a Monet. They each had problems they had to overcome to create their art.”

O’Hara’s technique comes down to dexterity of his trapezius muscles. “About 90 percent of my work is done with the neck,” he says, adding that he has to wheel back from his paintings every few strokes to see the bigger picture. “Sometimes, I’ll be five inches away from my painting, and after I’ve worked that way for a while, my eyes are kind of hurting.”

O’Hara has an independent spirit, and rather than view his disability as a downside, he almost seems to take pride in it: He has the words “Cripple Supremacy” tattooed on his stomach and the handicap symbol tattooed on the right side of his neck. He picked up a taste for ink as a habitué in the underground punk and hardcore music scene in Phoenix during the late ’80s and early ’90s – which helped shape his painting style. His other cultural influence is Native American and Southwestern art; he grew up taking art lessons in the Mesa community of Lehi, bordering the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. He admits there’s a striking polarity between the two styles – screaming skulls on one hand, luxuriously-maned horses on the other – but says both sell well. “I don’t like to be inhibited,” O’Hara says. “Because of my technique, because I paint with my mouth, I can get away with doing whatever I want, as far as subject matter goes. Because my message is overcoming adversity, right? It gives hope to people. And I’ve met a lot of people that have given me hope in my life, so I’m comfortable with that today.”

O’Hara, 43, grew up in the Valley to a prosperous Mormon family. His father is a dentist who fitted O’Hara with porcelain caps to repair teeth ground down from years of mouth painting; ultimately, he switched to metal caps after losing one too many porcelain fittings. He learned to adapt to his disability at a young age, putting toothpaste in a hand soap bottle so he could dispense it with his chin, and he continues to innovate every day – he trained his pit bull, Liberty, to pick up items and put them within reach of his mouth. He started drawing and painting at age 13 and sold his first piece in 1986, when he was 15. He even tried to give tattoos once, which resulted in a mishap nearly worthy of a tongue-in-cheek Darwin Award for self-removal from the gene pool.

After purchasing a tattoo gun, O’Hara and some friends mounted the motor to an old motorcycle helmet and cut a hole in the face plate for the stem and needle of the tattoo gun. The helmet weighed about 25 pounds by the time they were finished, and after “grinding on” his friend’s arm for an hour, O’Hara decided to lose the helmet and try to bite and grip the tattoo gun with his mouth. “So I put the thing in my mouth, and I stepped on the pedal, and voom! 120 volts to my brain,” he recalls. “And my eyes actually blacked out for a minute, and I couldn’t see. I was like, ‘I’m blind! Take me to the hospital!’ But finally, the colors blended back in, and I was like, ‘I’ll never do that again.’ I sold [the tattoo gun] the next day.”

Though he had to abandon his ambition of tattooing sleeves of spider webs and barbed wire on friends, O’Hara found other ways – equally electrifying but less electrocuting – to express himself. As a young man, he was a staple of the Valley’s hard-partying punk music scene, singing for local bands The Kegels and Adversor. “It was a lot of fun,” he says. “Then I got carried away.”

“I kind of stopped painting for a while, had like a 10 year gap. I kind of fell apart and was drinking a lot and stuff,” O’Hara says. “But I started working a program and getting myself back together, and practicing good principles and being a good human being, and it’s changed my life completely... I kind of had to start over a little bit, but that’s where I’m at, and I’m proud of myself. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t gone through the things I went through. And I’ve got some [recovering alcoholics] that are underneath me that I’m helping to stay sober and stuff. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s a gift.” 

O’Hara has been sober for five years and now makes his full-time living as an artist. He says each painting takes him, on average, about a month to complete. Looking at the rich layers and intricate lines in his paintings, it can be easy to forget they come from a series of slow, subtle head movements – until you see the right sleeve of O’Hara’s black T-shirt, smeared with strokes of paint, creating an accidental pattern of bright yellow, orange, and red that resembles an abstract peacock. This is how O’Hara cleans his brushes. “All of my clothes, I paint on them,” he says. “I’ve learned to wear it as a badge of honor now.”

 For O’Hara, painting isn’t just a pastime or a way to make a living – it’s how he lives. “The freedom it gives me is one of the most important things to me. I always have this thing in the back of my mind – this is kind of corny, but it’s true – that I’m kind of painting my own heaven, eventually,” O’Hara says. “I like to put all these things together, and that’s where I’m going to go eventually, as long as I do the right things.” 

In addition to selling his art at galleries and on the street at First and Second Friday art walks in Phoenix and Mesa, respectively, O’Hara gives art lessons at his home studio (visit kirkohara.com for more details). “It’s like my career is just starting to blossom again,” he says. “I’ve got all these new things and new ideas. I’m real excited about my future.”