Art has always been at the center of Mariam Paré’s life.
“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a creative person,” she said. “Crayons and pencils were always my favorite toys as a kid. Art was a way for me to entertain myself and process things during my childhood.”
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.
However, life changed in an instant for Paré while visiting friends in Richmond, Va. She was in a car when gunfire erupted on the sidewalk. A bullet entered the car and struck her neck, leaving her a quadriplegic. 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 had big plans for the future. After my injury occurred, I basically thought my life was over. I could not imagine leading any resemblance of a life that was similar to what I had before.”
Paré eventually gained motivation from watching other people with similar disabilities find new ways to live quality lives.
“I began to think, ‘If other people can do this, then I can too,’” she said. “There was a glimmer of possibility. I didn’t want to live a life of solitude. I wanted art back in my life because I didn’t think that I could live my life without it.”
After learning how to write her name using her mouth, Paré realized that she could still draw. This allowed her to return to what she has always been most passionate about.
“I was so happy. Art gave me a purpose and helped me cope with the disability better.”
In 1999, Paré re-enrolled at College of DuPage and discovered that the campus community was accommodating and willing to assist her in any way possible.
“Everyone was so helpful. There were people who went to my classes with me, carried my books and set up my art materials. 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 COD, completing her prerequisites and core art classes on her way to a degree. It took her about 10 years to become as good of artist using her mouth as she was with her hands.
Now a member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, Paré has experienced numerous high points throughout her career, including solo art exhibitions and an appearance on the “Today” show.
She is currently involved in the Tres Fridas Project, a collaboration with artists Reveca Torres and Tara Ahern. The project, inspired by iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s “Dos Fridas” painting, recreates notable images of art and history that substitute the subjects with people with disabilities.
Kahlo, who contracted polio and later suffered serious injuries during a tragic bus accident, has long served as an idol of Paré’s.
“Frida was a pioneer for artists with disabilities,” she said. “She was one of the first artists who painted her challenges in such a bold and unapologetic way. I relate to that.”
Paré is looking forward to returning to COD for the Frida Kahlo 2020 exhibit.
“I’m so thrilled to be able to come back and see Frida’s work on the walls that my work once hung on. That is amazing and I’ll definitely be there.”
In 2020, Paré was awarded a 3Arts Fellowship with University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s one more recognition that she can add to her impressive resume, and she said that her journey has taught her that the possibilities for her future are endless.
“At one point I didn’t know if I could pursue art anymore. Now I realize there are no limits.”