Art against all odds
Every day is a good day. Even the bad ones are a gift. For artist, author, and motivational speaker Henry Fraser, this is more than a mantra; it’s a way of life.
Like many modern artists, he’s used an iPad to create some of his most famous works. What sets Fraser apart is that he’s quadriplegic and paints with his mouth.
On holiday back in 2009, aged just 17, Fraser did what he had already done many times that week. Running down the beach and into the sea to cool off, he dived head-first into the water. On this occasion, however, he hit a hidden sand bank.
Fraser dislocated his fourth vertebra and severed his spinal cord. He was paralysed from the neck down. He has since spent years recovering, relearning how to breathe for himself, how to swallow, and, eventually, how to paint again.
“When I was younger, I used to love art,” he says, speaking in a measured voice between careful breaths. “I used to be building, drawing, creating anything. As I got older, through GCSEs and AS-Level, I started to fall out of love with it. Then I had the accident.”
“I didn’t think of art for about five and half years, not until January 2015. I had a sore on my back; a consequence of a spinal chord injury, and I was stuck in bed just getting really bored with watching daytime TV.”
“When I had the chance to sit up, the carer would cross my legs and put some pillows on my lap and my iPad on top. I would mostly be playing games through the day. I’m world class at Football Manager now,” Fraser jokes as we chat in his living room-turned-studio.
“I had nothing else to do, but then I decided to try drawing and searched around on the App Store for drawing apps.”
Fraser stumbled on an app that would go on to change his life. “I found an app called Sketches,” he explains. “It’s an incredible drawing app, the options on there are vast and there are so many things you can do with it. All of my drawings started off very linear. How you would with a pencil really. I would then branch out on using different thicknesses and more colour.”
I had nothing else to do, but then I decided to try drawing.
This was just the start. “When I was well enough to get out of bed, I started to try drawing with pencils and then a few months after that with paint,” Fraser explains. “I don’t think I would have thought to start with pencils and paint if I hadn’t stumbled on that app.”
Restricted to head and neck movements, Fraser paints using a mouth stick. It has a rubberised mouth piece, an adjustable end and can be fitted with a paint brush, pencil or stylus depending on what he is working on.
“When I paint, I get my carer or mum – whoever’s around – to push me into the easel, get the right position, and put a cloth across my arms so that I can wipe the paintbrush,” he explains. “There are two trays on my easel. The bottom one holds a water dish and a piece of cardboard – that’s my palette. I will get whoever’s there to squeeze out some paint, and once I’m set up, I can go for a while.”
After my accident I thought so many doors had been shut. In fact it’s opened so many more.
“I have four mouth sticks so I get different brushes loaded up at the start and then someone just has to come in and switch them around for me. I always try to plan ahead with it to work out what I will need and when.”
“On the app I can go from thin to thick lines which makes things a lot easier and I can do things much quicker. With the Undo button, I don’t worry as much about making mistakes because I know I can go back. The drawings I do on iPad take two to four hours. Pencil drawings are long, probably about a week, and the paintings can take anywhere between two and five days.”
Fraser shared his early efforts via Twitter and Instagram, and his art quickly went viral. Just 10 months after first trying these drawing apps, and four months after starting with paints, he held his first private art exhibition. This was followed nine months later by a major public showing, and most recently with the launch of his autobiographical book, The little big things,available on iBooks.
While the results are stunning, Fraser’s work takes its toll.
“If I’m drawing a line I don’t breathe because it causes me to move,” he explained. “Breathing is quite a lot of effort for me, Iuse muscles other people don’t normallyuse. I have cushions on my lap to hold my arms and give my back a bit of a rest.”
I don’t think I would have thought to start with pencils and paint if I hadn’t stumbled on that app.
“There’s a painting I did of Everest. I did four days in a row, five hours each day with no breaks. By the end, my muscles were completely finished. It’s all well and good that I can get the painting done, but for three days afterwards I’m absolutely shattered.”
Despite all of the obstacles standing in his way, Fraser’s positive attitude has caused him to constantly push beyond people’s expectations. “Sometimes you just have to adapt to life’s challenges,” he says. “After my accident I thought so many doors had been shut. In fact it’s opened so many more.”
“If I hadn’t found those apps, I wouldn’t have started drawing, then I wouldn’t, when I was well enough, have started with paint. The art has opened up so many different avenues for me now, it’s incredible. It’s one of those things that what was annoying, having a sore in bed, has actually opened up so many other things.”
Like Fraser says: “Every day is a good day.” You just have to look at it in the right way.