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Naperville woman paralyzed in shooting creates masterful paintings

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Mariam Pare didn’t want to just paint a chair. She wanted to put it into context.

The Naperville painter, one of 20 area artisans crafting works of art from chairs for the upcoming Bridge Communities “A Chair Affair” fundraiser at North Central College, has mounted her repurposed seat into a canvas that will be completed with background details and then set inside a frame for the June 12 auction gala.

“I’m a painter by profession, so I wanted to do it as a painter would,” said Pare, 38, a 1993 Naperville North High School alumna who has lived in the city most of her life.

She doesn’t paint quite in the same way as most others who funnel their talent into brushes, pigments and canvas, however. Pare has been a mouth painter since she was paralyzed at age 20, when the car in which she was riding stopped off in Richmond, Va., and was riddled with bullets fired from the sidewalk. One of them tore into Pare’s spinal cord, instantly leaving her legs and right arm powerless, and her left arm with very limited use.

She had begun her painting career before the injury, and when rehabilitation wrapped up and the time came to look to her future again, Pare found that rather than using her damaged left hand, she much preferred holding the brush between her jaws.

“I could get the most detail, the most control, with my mouth,” she said, admitting it felt odd at first. “Since painting was so big in my life, I wanted to find a way to keep doing it.”

She has kept doing it ever since then.

It didn’t take long to realize that her painting style remained essentially intact. Even her signature, written by mouth, looked virtually identical to the way it used to, when she signed her name using her right hand.

“It’s kind of a testament to the art that’s within you,” she said. “That sounds so corny, but your aesthetics are inside of you.”

Now considered one of the world’s foremost mouth painters, Pare shares her aesthetics with many fund-raising projects locally and elsewhere. Her work also appears regularly on the calendars and greeting cards sold by the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, which assists with licensing and copyright matters and provides stipends and scholarships for many of its 800 members.

“It is so liberating as an artist to not have to worry about how you’re going to buy your supplies,” she said. “They have been so good to me in developing my skills as a mouth painter.”

She was particularly willing to help out with the chairs because she had a friend who was helped by Bridge Communities during a difficult time. The Glen Ellyn social services agency provides housing, mentors, employment support and other assistance to help homeless families regain their independence. Pare said she liked how the nonprofit operates with very little government funding.

“They’re raising their own money, and especially for nonprofits, that’s so good,” she said.

The chairs to be available at the auction will be on display in downtown Naperville storefronts from May 27 through June 11, and the community will have a chance to weigh in on their favorites.

“It’s going to be fun to see what the other artists have done,” Pare said.

Most of the art pieces going up for bid at the gala, set to begin at 6 p.m. on June 12, are expected to retain their four-legs-on-the-floor chair shape. Titled “The Persistence of the Third Dimension,” Pare’s contribution is intended to convey the illusory elements of perspective, and the effect of motion on perception. She regards her chair as combining the best of the second and third dimensions.

“Since I’m so familiar with the two-dimension as a painter, I thought my chair could be coming out of the canvas and into the third dimension,” she explained.

She is hopeful that when the chairs are placed in the downtown area, those who see them will recognize they’re there for a good cause.

“It’s not just for being artsy,” Pare said.

More details about Bridge Communities and its upcoming event in Naperville, including the opportunity to purchase tickets, can be found at www.bridgecommunities.org. For more information about Pare and her work, visit www.mariampare.com.

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