In 2017, Jason Hamel decided to try painting. Lots of people do. But Jason had a unique challenge: He couldn’t use his arms or legs. Ever since a fateful bicycle accident two decades ago, Jason has gotten around exclusively by wheelchair. He uses a special trackpad to operate his computer. To even cover a canvas in pigments, much less create the lavish portrait of a sunflower in full bloom, he had to clench the brush in his teeth.
“I just did this one painting,” says Jason. “But everybody reacted to it.”
Deep into his forties, Jason found abrupt success: A friend recommended Sprout Gallery in Providence, and he was quickly commissioned with a solo show. Sprout waived its commission fee and turned the exhibit into a benefit; all sales would help Jason purchase a wheelchair-accessible van.
The offer was exciting, but also required a staggering amount of labor. “I had to bang out all these paintings in like four months,” Jason recalls. He created portrait after portrait, honing his newfound skills. Flowers became lighthouses, a red barn, and a windmill. His landscapes became more extravagant and daring. One work, “Beavertail Lighthouse at Sunset,” is a dreamy collision of sunlight, reflection, and color-laced clouds.
The 2018 exhibit was a success. He now owns the van. And best of all: “I’ve been painting ever since.”
One might view Jason’s story as tragic – a rising BMX star and the crash that immobilized him. But Jason has been living an active and fruitful life. He credits his late father with profound dedication, for normalizing and even enhancing his daily experiences. After the accident, Jason maintained a strong social network. He went to concerts and became friendly with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones; he even made an appearance in one of their music videos. A former potter, he stuck to the arts and earned a degree in graphic design from Rhode Island College; he’s worked extensively as a freelancer.
Jason has never met another artist who uses his mandibular painting technique, but he recently found a kindred spirit. Up in Massachusetts, Peter Damon is an Iraqi veteran who lost both his arms in a helicopter accident. He is also a prolific painter and owner of True Grit Art Gallery. Jason and Peter have corresponded about their shared creative perseverance. They have even talked about featuring Jason’s canvases.
This means Jason has a lot of work to do. Three-quarters of his paintings have sold, he is eager to get his work out there. “Basically,” he says, “I’m just going to keep going.”