“My art speaks what I would be saying with words.”
Baltimore artist and motivational speaker Dan Keplinger found his calling when a high school teacher suggested he should try expressing himself through visual art. Years later, after becoming the subject of Academy Award-winning documentary King Gimp and seeing the range of emotions he is able to convey onto canvas with paint, it is difficult to imagine him doing anything else.
Complications during birth, including being momentarily deprived of oxygen, caused Dan to suffer a traumatic brain injury. He was subsequently diagnosed with mixed spastic and athetoid cerebral palsy.
As early as 18 months old, Dan began learning at a special education school run by United Cerebral Palsy of Central Maryland. He attended special education schools until he was 16, when he was “mainstreamed” into Baltimore’s public school system.
As one might expect, he struggled when he first began attending a “normal” high school. But Dan persevered; eventually, he found that school became easier.
The real life change took place, however, once he began creating art.
He learned to paint with a head stick — a paintbrush attached to a modified headband fastened over his head from one ear to the other, with a long, thin rod extending from just over his forehead. He uses different brushes that can be easily interchanged by one of his friends. They also help him mix his colors.
When painting, Dan sits on the floor and moves his head to move the brush across the canvas, which lies flat on the floor in front of him. His apartment floor was modified to make painting easier — it was built with a layer of thick foam, allowing him to move around the canvas without hurting his knees. Dan’s art, which frequently depicts large eyes or faces, wheelchairs and abstracts, began being shown professionally in May 2000, and has since been shown at prestigious shows across the country.
At 9, Keplinger was included in a documentary called Beginning with Bong, a film produced by Susan Hannah Hadary and William A. Whiteford at the University of Maryland Video Press and Tapestry International Productions. The film focused on children with disabilities from various economic backgrounds being mainstreamed in different schools.
Though Keplinger was one of several children in the documentary, Hadary and Whiteford were particularly compelled by his journey. The duo continued filming Dan long after Beginning with Bong. They filmed him at home and at school, including attending his first prom, as well as his graduation and first art show. Much of this footage was used in a second documentary called King Gimp, which won an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary in 2000.
Dan’s life changed yet again after the release of King Gimp and the worldwide acclaim it received. The film began being used by schools, universities and disability organizations as a learning tool and motivation for people of all ages with disabilities.
“The film King Gimp documents Dan’s joys and frustrations including the freedom granted by his first power wheelchair, his rebellion against using a computer-generated voice, his everyday strides for independence, and his most life altering discovery—art,” reports the MedSchool Maryland Productions and Video Press website.
After King Gimp gave Dan the exposure to reach even more people, he began giving motivational speeches to audiences around the country, which he continues to do today. His speaking engagements include topics such as “Accessible Arts” and “Overcoming Physical Challenges to Create Success.” Keplinger’s ability to overcome obstacles and his belief that people with disabilities have a right to be included in all aspects of society have made him sought after by federal agencies as well as corporations. His perseverance through his own hardships have shown countless others that it is possible to succeed, despite physical handicaps.
Empowering Others by Expressing Himself
Art gave Dan more than a way to express himself without having to rely on anyone else. It helped him express that same message of empowerment to others. On the heels of King Gimp’s Oscar win, Keplinger appeared in a Cingular Wireless Super Bowl commercial promoting self-expression. Among the many honors the commercial received was the best Super Bowl commercial of the year in USA Today, the Walter Knott Service Award for displaying outstanding humanitarian spirit and the TASH Image Award for exemplary achievement in media. The commercial and these awards gave Dan the exposure to reach millions of people with and without disabilities and allowed him to help raise money for various research organizations aiming to help people with cerebral palsy.
I Define Me
Through his art and speaking engagements, Dan Keplinger continues to raise awareness of the effects of cerebral palsy, inspiring people to overcome their own hardships every day. His art continues to be shown in galleries across the country. It shows that anything can be done through perseverance.
Dan is an artist who refuses to be held back in any capacity by his physical limitations. He wants to show the world that anything is possible. We are pleased to designate Dan Keplinger as our winner of the “I Define Me” award for February 2015.