If you haven’t had the opportunity to meet Donald Ryker, he’s a pretty extraordinary man and an even more impressive artist. We’re pleased to have him as a panelist at our Turning Challenges into Possibilities for the Special Needs Family Summit. But we thought Donald’s story should be shared with more people, people who aren’t able to attend our summit.
Donald is an accomplished painter who just happens to have Cerebral Palsy. He’s overcome physical hurdles and found himself in art. An area that sparked interest, ingenuity, and a desire for inclusion. The depth of his passion is inspiring, and we think it’s best if Donald explains that himself.
Question and Answer with Donald Ryker
FLN: How did you discover your love of art? When did you first begin painting?
Donald: When I was a baby, I was very interested in figuring out how things worked. I wanted to know the physics of how mechanical toys worked and I was always interested in being creative and putting things together. Maybe that is how all kids explore the world, but it wasn’t so easy for me to do. My mom helped me build, make puppets, do chalk drawings, and color and paint.
When I was about 11 years old, I remember being in a woodworking class and carving a block of wood to change it into something else. What I do with paint is the same. It is creating something new that wasn’t there before and making connections with parts to make an image.
My first real chance to paint on my own came in high school. I saw an academy award-winning documentary featuring Dan Keplinger aka King Gimp. He has my disability and had figured out how to become a paint artist. I watched that film and thought “I can do that”. My mentor teacher hooked me up with the art teacher and my mom figured out how to make the hardhat/brush so I could paint with my head. I didn’t know it could become a career. I had to paint sitting on my knees and that eventually got painful, so I was doing less.
I decided on a career in digital film editing and went to interview editors in Los Angeles. They all said the most important thing is to take art classes – as many as I could. So, in college I started taking Chinese brushstroke, 2 D design, drawing, and finally, painting. It only took me a few weeks in that painting class, and I knew I was changing my major to art.
FLN: What does it mean to you to have a career that’s your passion?
Donald: If I hadn’t re-discovered how much I loved painting, I would have probably continued to develop a career using the computer to be creative. I have a drive to create and to produce my work.
Painting gives me a lot of freedom to do that in a way that works for me. When I paint, I feel better physically and emotionally. It is an outlet and a focus for me. I never get tired of being a painter, but I would paint each day for a few hours.
A lot more time ends up being spent on developing my art business. This is building something too and feels very satisfying. I want people to see what I have created and appreciate it. That happens when I am exhibiting, or people see my work online. I have to work to develop those opportunities and have learned a lot through extra courses on marketing, social media, building a portfolio, and presenting my work.
FLN: How did you come up with your hard hat paintbrush technique?
Donald: Dan Keplinger wears a professional head gear for a disabled person to use their head to type, draw, paint, etc. When I wanted to try the art class in high school my mom wanted to buy me that gear, but it was too expensive. She said, I might not even like painting, so we had to figure out a cheaper way.
Mom was used to going up and down the aisles of the hardware store with her dad to figure out how to make things for me. That’s what she did – wandered around until she found the hard hat and figured out how to make a chin strap and fasten a stick to it. Once I had chosen this career, she bought me the head gear for a Christmas gift, but I still like my hardhat best.
FLN: What else do you do to adjust your environment so you can paint?
Donald: I need to have a slanted drafting/art table so my wheelchair can get close. There has to be room for my legs underneath, so I can’t use a typical easel.
That was the amazing thing about my first painting class. They had just remodeled the art department and purchased these art tables that were perfect for me. I bought one for my home, so I wasn’t limited to painting at school.
Canvases work best for me to paint on because they a firm but not hard. I can push against them with my brush. I use a long-handled brush angled to reach the canvas which means I can reach about 18 inches high up the canvas.
I paint large because that gives me room to be imperfect with my strokes and paint. I slide the canvas from side to side to reach the edges and someone helps me turn the canvas as I need to, to reach all areas.
People have been surprised to know I paint with the canvas sideways and upside down when I need to. I used to only paint on sunny days because I used natural light through my windows, but then I discovered I could use special light bulbs that would give me true color. Now, I can paint on rainy days and in the evening.
I have a painting assistant to mix my colors from the basic primary red, yellow, blue, white, and black. This person has to be very trained on how to create the colors and the opacity of my paint or stain for my vision. I sketch using charcoal on canvas then plan the colors and layers to get the effect I want.
FLN: How have you had to adjust the way you move to paint effectively?
Donald: When I first started painting, I did abstracts because I was limited in how I could move the brush. I went side to side in an arc motion. What changed to make it possible to control my brush and paint real objects is I had to start moving further down my spine, all the way to my pelvis and I had to be able to rotate my head on my neck better. I didn’t think this change through and figure it out in my head. I was just trying to follow my teacher’s instruction and she believed I could do more. My body figured out what it needed to do to make circles, vertical lines, and other shapes and that meant my painting became unlimited.
FLN: I understand that your mother is a Feldenkrais Practitioner, and I believe you have used Feldenkrais Method at some points in your life. Do you think that the Feldenkrais approach has helped your body when it comes time to figuring out what it needs to do to facilitate something in your expressive art? Or maybe that is just intrinsic body wisdom you would have, no matter what?
Donald: My mother is a Feldenkrais Practitioner and a high-level ABM Practitioner. I had Feldenkrais lessons once or twice a week from 7 years old to 14 years old, then my mother was available when I needed work. At 22 years old, I actually attended the first half of the ABM professional training myself, as a student.
When I am trying to do something new or in a new way, my years of Feldenkrais and ABM are in my body. I don’t try to figure it out in my thinking brain, I just look at what I want to do and ask myself to figure it out by trying different ways of doing it. It is very unconscious, but if it was innate, I think I would have had more success in my early years, before I had all the movement learning. My disability is very severe, and it interfered with having basic learning experiences in gravity. I continue to learn and improve with all movement, but it is very slow progress and the basic neurological damage that occurred when I was without oxygen at birth is still influencing how I move. My mom continues to look for new things that might help me with that as well as giving me lessons if I need them.
FLN: When creating the technique you use and customizing it, how long did it take to feel you “got it right”?
Donald: In art class, students are guided to learn many techniques. I found the ones that would allow me to create my own vision, while I was working with my painting teacher. The main component I use that has become my signature style is using layers glaze over a base color. Most people do this in very thin layers. I do it with very thick impasto glaze and it gives my paintings texture and depth.
FLN: Explain that learning and trial-and-error process.
Donald: Many times, I discovered what I do now through what my teacher called “happy accidents”. I would use more pigment than I planned or use a colored glaze in an unexpected way and discover I hadn’t ruined my painting; it had taken on a new look that I really liked. I am flexible with where the painting is going and don’t know exactly how it will look until I get there.
FLN: Do you feel you’ve mastered it now or are there continual changes?
Donald: Recently I started being able to paint with even more control and detail. That meant my style evolved again. Another change happened when I became interested in painting western figures with horses. It doesn’t mean I am done with wildlife, but it creates a series of a certain style.
FLN: Is this the same approach you use in other areas of your life to accomplish your goals? Can you cite some examples?
Donald: I have the same positive approach in other areas of my life. I am happy to let things evolve to an extent. I do get strong ideas of what direction I want my business or life to go but am open to change and don’t usually get frustrated or unhappy.
FLN: What can someone with cerebral palsy or any other disability learn from your experiences and triumphs?
Donald: I know other people with disabilities do get inspired by what I do. I think it gives them ideas how they can move forward in their life, but even more, I want people without disabilities to recognize what a man in a wheelchair can do.
People with disabilities should be automatically included in our society and life. It shouldn’t be amazing to see me paint because all people with disabilities should be able to succeed in many areas and that should be normal.
Learn More About Donald
What an incredible sentiment. Why limit what can be learned by someone by classifying them in a group, instead take their journey and turn it into a story of triumph for everyone. If you’d like to learn more about Donald, please check out his website and view his incredible artwork. You can also view his fantastic video here.
If you’re interested in learning more about how the Feldenkrais® approach to movement could potentially tap into your unrealized potential, follow our Future Life Now blog or learn more about attending one of our summits.