The Metamorphosis of Artist Mariam Paré

 In Culture, Interviews

Born in 1976 in Kenitra, Morocco and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Mariam Paré has made art all her life. Scanning her vivid panoply of paintings and multimedia canvases, one is struck by at once their accessibility and wild variety: a portrait of Pierce Brosnan as James Bond sits beside a woodland landscape, and a still life of lemons prefaces the figure of a fallen bird trying to lift a boulder with its beak. The loopily surreal gets geometric. The decorative fades into the subtly disquieting. While it’s clear that Paré isn’t afraid to experiment with technique and topic, the stakes of every single brushstroke are less clear. For half of her life, Paré has been paralyzed from the neck down.

At 20, she was shot by an unknown assailant while driving a friend’s car, limiting the function of her hands and leaving her permanently unable to walk. “It was an all-too-real example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she writes on her website. “Painting was one of those things I discovered that I could still do, but just in a different way.”

That Paré says “just” is a testament to her refusal to be simply categorized as a “mouth-painter” and nothing more. She may hold her brushes and drawing utensils between her lips, but what matters is what she does with them on the canvas. “I’m an artist. Not a disabled person who happens to paint,” she says toward the beginning of the interview, eager to keep the focus on her creative process rather than the drama of her prior injury. “I think that story becomes cliché after a while and loses its basis in reality.”

I’m curious about the process it took to reteach yourself to paint after your injury. Was there an “Aha!” moment where you realized you had gained a new dexterity? Or was it a slow climb?

To be completely honest, it was a slow climb—I almost didn’t make it to the top. I was at an advantage and a disadvantage by the fact that I was an artist before I became injured. The advantage was that I had all this knowledge and knew what I was capable of, and an ego surrounding that I had this ability. But when you lose the use of your hands, it’s taken away from you. The advantage that someone has who’s not an artist before they mouth-paint is that they don’t know how good they can be.

It took me so long to get to the point where I felt I was as good as I had been once with my hands. It was about 10 years. What kept me going, even though I wasn’t necessarily making the work as I had before, was that I loved art. I loved making art. If you’re a true artist and you have that compulsion, you’re going to do that because it’s a necessity. It’s a spiritual necessity. I think that’s what carried me through to continue to develop as a mouth-painter and reach the point where I was as good as I had been. People who don’t love art as much as I do might have given up a little sooner.

Sometimes I wonder if I even had a choice. I thought, “I can’t get myself up in the morning, I can’t put toothpaste on my own toothbrush, but I can still get up and sit in front of this canvas and draw or paint.” I focused on that: what I could do.

Mariam Paré
Who were some of your influences, as far as other artists? Some of your figurative paintings remind me a bit of Marc Chagall, in terms of the bright color palette and the physiognomy of human bodies.

I love Chagall. I think I have two different kinds of influences. There’s the model influence—like Frida Kahlo. Not necessarily for her subject matter, but in how she was expressing her pain and her experience without apology, demystifying disability, ugliness, all that. In terms of subject, I love surrealism and expressive work. I think that’s where my color comes in. When I paint, I want to paint something beautiful, colorful—painting is a meditative, happy place for me. But I like weirdness too—fantasy, a bit of darkness. I don’t always work in those styles because I’m also a working artist and I need to make a living. Not everybody wants that kind of work for licensing or publishing.

I noticed a lot of diversity in your creative output.

A lot of that is because I worked as a commercial artist for so long, but still have a very personal yearning for the weird and strange and fantastic. People have pointed out before: that I’m so eclectic you can’t pick out one theme from my work. But I wonder why you would want to. Some artists are known for their one thing, but maybe what I’m known for is my variety. I’m constantly looking for the new challenge. I get bored easily. I don’t limit myself to anything.

I really enjoy your mixed media—it has more of that fantastical weirdness you mentioned.

I love that you like those—usually people don’t gravitate toward those pieces in my work. They’re interested in the portraits and work where I have to have so much technical control, when the pieces I’m most proud of are the ones in which I’m letting go a bit more.

Perhaps they are more impressed by your mimetic skill as a mouth-painter of representing someone else, but I’m honestly more impressed with your ability to be expressive and experimental. I also noticed the shifts between more light-hearted work, like the portrait of Brosnan, and more message-oriented work like “Liberty,” the mixed-media piece of the Statue of Liberty holding up a gun instead of a torch. How do you navigate these poles that are more commercial or more conceptual?

When I’m commissioned to do a still life or landscape, I’m really traditional. But when I’m making work for myself—what I consider my true work—I do what I’m interested in at the time. But it wasn’t until the last few years that I started making work like the Statue of Liberty piece. Those are works based on my experience as a victim of gun violence and my experience of paralysis. It took me years to feel like I could speak on that artistically. I had things to say about it earlier, but it took me years of accepting myself and accepting my situation to make work about it that I could express to other people. When I see the future of my work now, I get a lot of validation from that type of work. I think that’s where I want to go with it in the future.

“Liberty” is very provocative, but when I first saw it, I wasn’t thinking of your injury at all. I was thinking about how we live in a country with a citizenry that so often conflates freedom with the ability to own a gun. When I reflected on your backstory later, it added a new layer of warranted disturbance.

For me, it’s also about symbolism—about how we as Americans symbolize our country. People love the Statue of Liberty. They love the gun. It’s the state of the country. One person’s liberty might intrude on another person’s liberty. My liberty was halted. There’s a lot of dialogue that can be had from creating an image like that. I didn’t know how people would react, and a lot of people got pissed off. They didn’t understand that I’m actually sticking up for people who believe in gun rights as much as I’m sticking up for the victims. It’s meant to be interpreted in more than one way.

You were born in Morocco, where your mother is from. Has that culture influenced your aesthetic or work at all?

I would like to think so. I grew up with tapestries in my home and brightly colored rugs, so I’ve always been around an Arab aesthetic—with how my mother dresses and even the food we eat. It has shaped how I see women, and how I see and depict their eyes.

What are you working on today? What are you excited about?

I’m excited about the fact that as a professional artist I’m getting to the point that I’m working more and more on my own work—truly my own. I’m getting that freedom to work out an idea. I’m not bound by anything right now. There are no rules. I love incorporating textures and different materials. In my next collection of paintings, I’m incorporating found objects. It gets my mouth watering just thinking about it. It’s exciting to wake up everyday and go to my studio and not know what’s going to happen. It’s awesome.

If I can convey a message to people, it’s to not be too easily discouraged by setbacks in life, no matter what they are. The thing that makes my story a success story isn’t what happened to me, but how I moved through it to what I do now.

Photograph by Attilio D’Agostino.

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