Tommy Hollenstein’s paintings are alive with color. Vibrant reds and rich blues collide with streaks of yellow like veins of energy. Colors like sunsets or lush abstract landscapes radiate seductively. Some canvases are elegantly stark, while others are dense with layers and rhythm. It’s the rhythm that is captivating. Evoking movement is the painter’s greatest challenge, for the picture is in reality motionless before us. It is the skill and passion of the artist that can cause the surface to appear to dance. Once the viewer is captivated by the dance on the canvas, they are lured closer to inspect the strokes on the surface. With Tommy’s art they will find no brushstrokes at all. There is something else: Patterns laced within patterns and spirals of swirling tire tread-marks. Tommy Hollenstein paints with his wheelchair.
Our culture easily embraces the victim, but Tommy has nothing to offer in the victim-hood department. Instead, he concentrates on his powerful strength and gifts. Without a pause he will tell you that his art is about “Joy and passion.”
Charismatic and handsome, he does not hesitate to talk about the day when at age twenty five, he broke his spinal column in a bike accident that changed his life forever. On March 10th, 1985 when he flew off his bike and hit the ground, he remembered hearing a “pop” like the striking of a metal rod. Then, he remembered floating up into the clouds.
“I was dead”, he says. “I could look down and see my own body laying there motionless. I remember thinking that I was not yet ready to die. I asked God to give me another chance.” When Tommy returned to his body, he knew immediately that he had broken his neck. His buddy called an ambulance, and the seriousness of his injury was confirmed. When he arrived at the hospital a priest gave him his last rights, but Tommy’s gratitude for life surpassed his sense of loss, and he did not die. After six difficult months in rehab, he was able to get movement in his arms and learned how to function as a paraplegic. Tommy would spend his remaining life in a wheelchair.
Of course, being the amazing person that he was, after being discharged he immediately set about living his life to the fullest. Without the use of his legs, he still enjoyed boating and water-skiing. His interest in this dynamic sport led him to even create a special device that Quadraplegics now use to water-ski. This kind of love for other people ensured that he would always be active and social. To be sure, Tommy was not alone in the world. His ongoing journey was enhanced greatly over the ensuing years by physical therapists, family and friends… and also by a dog named Weaver. Weaver was trained specifically to aid Tommy and grew to become his trusted companion. It was through this special relationship that Tommy was led to realize his powerful voice as an artist.
Tommy speaks with emotion as he relates the idea that opened this door. “I knew that my dog wouldn’t always be in good health forever. I wanted to do something to remember Weaver by. Why not record his paw-prints?” He laid a flat surface on the ground in his garage and coaxed Weaver to dip his paws in colored house paint. Then, Tommy rolled through some paint as well.He moved across the flat surfacein his wheelchair as Weaver walked faithfully beside him, leaving paw prints and tire marks on the paper. They tried this together a few times, and during the process Tommy realized that now...he was painting.
“ I tried experimenting with different colors, and patterns. I found that I had really fine control over the sensitivity of my marks,” he states. Indeed, the built-in computer in his wonderful Invacare motorized wheelchair allows him to maneuver with varying speed, direction and pressure as he paints. He was hooked.
A number of dedicated paraplegic and quadriplegic artists around the world have learned to paint with brushes delicately held by their teeth, or with their toes. Their work is incredible in that it is a testament to unstoppable courage , but it also reflects the common drive that so many artists have within them. Learning or relearning a manual dexterous skill is simply part of the path for the dedicated artist, who will not let their creativity be hindered in any way. There are inspiring stories of the French Impressionist painter Renoir asking assistants to tie paint brushes onto his crippled hands with rope when he could no longer hold them. Old photos attest to that. This was how Renoir, also confined to a wheelchair, created his last shimmering paintings. Since the process of relearning skills was a regular part of Tommy’s lifestyle, he put no barriers up when the time came to develop his new way of approaching art-making.
“I feel free when I am painting in my wheelchair,” Tommy says. “I feel No restrictions.” Is it possible that by not relying on his limbs or hands, might his mind and his heart be more readily involved in the creation process? Watching Tommy “glide” over a canvas gives the impression that he is “flying” above his art. He leaves his tracks in paint, announcing without irony or self-pity that he is actually dancing.
Tommy Hollenstein’s first dog Weaver has passed on. His new dog Hiley now attends his crowded art exhibitions with him. Growing acknowledgment by the media helps get his paintings out in the public consciousness. His charity art projects with children help him spread the message of strength. “Do what you love. Have gratitude for life,” he says. God dealt Tommy a card that would challenge any of us. He responded to that card with art and courage.