Student Spotlight: Mariam Paré
Mariam Paré always felt compelled to express herself.
“I was a kid who was artistic,” she said. “My favorite toys were crayons and paints. It was part of my identity growing up.”
Paré enrolled at College of DuPage for one quarter at the age of 19 and then moved to San Francisco, hoping to attend art school there.
But life changed in an instant for Paré while visiting friends in Richmond, Va. She was in a car at a stop sign when gunfire erupted on the sidewalk. A single bullet passed through the car’s door and struck her neck, paralyzing her instantly. After five months in the hospital, she returned to Chicago for rehab and then home, where it took several years to regroup.
“As an able-bodied person, I just wanted to do my art,” she said. “But after the accident, there was this weird uncertainty. It was hard just feeding myself. I was grieving for the life I lost and grieving about my lost future. I couldn’t even envision the future.
“To gain some independence, I had to learn how to sign my name. A therapist taught me to write my name using a pen in my mouth, and that’s when I realized I could draw. I was so happy to have art back in my life. It gave me a purpose and made me cope with the disability better.”
In 1999, Paré re-enrolled at College of DuPage. The school became a testing ground, because it was her first exposure to going out in public as a person with a disability.
“I was starting all over again. I already knew how to do my art because I did it well and at a high level,” she said. “However, while I had the knowledge in my head, my body couldn’t do it. But it’s all about practice. I have a love for it, so I was determined and driven.
“COD taught me that people are willing to help and accommodate you. I needed to learn to ask for things. For example, I could get a special desk, and that gave me a sense of equality that was so valuable to me.
“For my art degree, I had to fulfill a sculpture requirement. I was assigned someone who I could tell what I wanted, and that person did the sculpting. COD taught me that even if I can’t physically do it, it was still my art if I can direct someone to do it.”
Paré spent years at College of DuPage, completing her prerequisites and core art classes on her way to a degree before branching out into other areas. For example, technology became important to her, and she pursued a second degree in graphic design and a certificate in web design.
She estimates it took her about 10 years to become as good of artist using her mouth as she was with her hands. Paré also became a member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA).
“I was a poster child for mouth painters. At first, I didn’t realize that was a thing. It’s not only a way for disabled people to do art but also a way to really do most things.”
Paré describes her art as highly eclectic, and she works on what interests her at the time. She always wants to challenge herself, and the results speak for themselves. Starting with exhibits at Chicago and suburban galleries, she has traveled around the world as both an artist and an advocate for the disabled. Art collectors internationally have approached her.
One of her career high points came in 2012 and 2013 when actor Pierce Brosnan, an artist himself, found out about Paré. He sent her a complimentary and encouraging note, and she decided to paint his portrait. Brosnan saw the portrait and invited her to his home, which led to other celebrities requesting Paré to paint their portraits. She even appeared on the “Today” show.
Paré has much to say through her art. In 2017, she opened a solo exhibition at the McCord Gallery in Palos Park, and one of her goals is to have her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
“While the disability sets me apart from other artists, the work stands for itself,” she said. “I’m fortunate to have reached a stage as an artist where this has become a privilege to do. Advocacy is also a huge part of my life, and I plan to continue working with organizations across the country to lead more inclusion workshops.
“At one point I didn’t know if I could pursue art anymore. Now I realize there are no limits.”
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