Life isn’t always fair. Sometimes, for example, people face adversity in the form of illness. But how these people overcome those adversities can provide a source of inspiration and astonishment for others. Indeed, the extraordinary artist who created these superb works of art did so in the most remarkable manner.
Paul Smith was born on September 21, 1921 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At a young age, though, Smith was diagnosed with a condition that would severely limit his physical capabilities. And doctors thought that the condition would only worsen as he got older. But Smith would never allow it to affect his love of creating art.
And his creative streak flourished despite many additional stumbling blocks. For instance, in the era in which he grew up, Smith was not eligible for an education because of his disabilities. Therefore, he never learned to write or read. What’s more, many physicians at the time even believed that he should have been homed in an institution.
Smith, in fact, had severe spastic cerebral palsy. It’s a condition that causes tightness of the muscles and leads to limited mobility, problems with coordination and severely impaired speech. And when Smith was young and dealing with his condition, there weren’t many opportunities available to him.
Indeed, doctors did not expect that Smith would live very long. Furthermore, it was hard for him to express himself, and he was also unable to clothe, bathe or even feed himself. But Smith had the grit to beat the odds. And when he was 11 years old, a new method of self-expression came to him.
At that time, Smith had come across an old typewriter that a neighbor had thrown away. He started messing around with it – and soon created a whole new way to communicate without the need of speech. In fact, using only a handful of the typewriter’s symbol keys, Smith taught himself how to create pictures.
Indeed, while his condition had rendered him unable to grip pens, pencils or paint brushes, what he could do was steady one hand with the other to depress the keys on the typewriter. Over the next four years, then, he would develop his style as he began producing these breathtaking works of art.
And that seemed to be a major turning point in his life. Having been unable to walk or talk at 11, moreover, by the age of 16 Smith was able to speak – albeit with great difficulty. Then, at the age of 32, he would stand on his own two feet and could walk for the first time. Both were achievements that doctors had thought were unattainable.
In effect, then, his mastery of a basic piece of office machinery would offer Smith a new means of non-verbal communication. Not only that, but as his skill progressed further, he would subsequently become an inspiration amongst the art community. He would go on to create hundreds of stunning artworks – breathtaking not only in their beauty, but also in how he made them.
Interestingly, Smith’s surroundings largely inspired his works of art. For instance, trains and railway tracks fascinated the man who had moved from Philadelphia to Hollywood, Florida, in his early life. In fact, they are subjects that featured heavily in his early works. But as his skill developed, the central themes of his work would grow.
As Smith became more adept at creating his artworks, moreover, they would increasingly reflect the subjects he felt an affinity towards. For example, a squirrel he made friends with subsequently appeared in his typewriter creations, and many of his pictures subsequently had a focus on nature and his surroundings. Yet as his talent grew, so too did his ambition as an artist.
Furthermore, although some artworks featured scenes of war and wartime heroes, Smith would sometimes explore his spiritual side. He would create portraits of spiritual beacons such as Jesus, Mother Theresa and the Pope. And, although many have created masterpieces in literature using a typewriter, Smith applied the tool to recreating famous paintings.
Among the artist’s reproductions were Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze and The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Perhaps most recognizable, however, are his reinterpretations of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa. In these examples, the painstaking detail of Smith’s craft is clear.
Smith created his artworks by using as few typewriter keys as possible. In fact, he restricted himself to using just nine symbols across the top of the keyboard – “!,” “@,” “#,” “%,” “^,” “_,” “(,” “&,” and “).” Using a combination of only these keystrokes, he was able to build up light and shade and create tremendous depth to his art. And then there’s also the nuts and bolts to consider.
Old-style manual typewriters, after all, are cumbersome to use. They’re a far cry from the sleek, light-touch keyboards of today’s laptops, so pushing down the keys takes some effort. Then there’s the mechanics – the ribbons and rollers to move, and paper to adjust. And, crucially, there is no delete key, so each stroke has to be thought out.
As Smith’s skill advanced, though, so did technology. The development of colored ribbons, for example, added a whole new depth to his work. He also adopted a technique whereby he would smear ribbon ink on his work by applying pressure with his finger. His pieces then duly began to adopt more of a look of being created with pastels, rather than resembling traditional pen-and-ink or charcoal sketches.
Furthermore, Smith would spend anything from a couple of weeks to several months on any given picture, depending on the scale and complexity of the piece. And given the difficulties presented by his condition, his art truly was a labor of love. He would work for a few hours each day and would give away pieces rather than seek financial reward.
Indeed, Smith was known for his humility, preferring to see his talent as a gift rather than trumpeting the great effort he put into his art. Meanwhile, as there was no documentation of his work, it’s hard to put a precise number on how many of his pictures exist. Many he gave away, and he rarely published or showed his work. Experts believe, though, that there could be more than 400.
Smith moved into a nursing home in Roseburg, Oregon in 1967, shortly after his parents passed away. And as well as his love of typewriter art, his personal interests were legion. He mastered the game of chess, for example, as well as regularly going to St. Joseph Catholic Church and remaining loyal to his beloved Miami Dolphins. He also listened to classical music while he typed.
But after a lifetime beating his physical constraints to embark on a fulfilling career creating art, Smith passed away on June 25, 2007. He had stopped producing art three years before as a result of cataracts. Moreover, it’s thought that he succumbed to the effects of old age rather than his condition, defying the doctors once again. And, somewhat ironically, as it is shared and admired online today, it is through modern technology that his work on the typewriter lives on.