Dan Keplinger looks exactly the part of an artist, with paint-spattered sleeves and hair that looks sculpted by a high wind, though with a bit more grey in it than appeared in the Oscar-winning documentary King Gimp. The film told the story of Dan’s remarkable life, specifically his use of the physical challenges of cerebral palsy to forge an international reputation as a painter.
Today, Dan is 42. A lifelong resident of Baltimore, he recently returned to live in Parkville, the suburb where he grew up, with his wife and a new puppy whose rampages through the room punctuated our recent conversation. While Dan’s wife translates much of his responses, his own voice is assertive and strong. It only takes me a few minutes to tune into his modes of communication — raised eyebrows, emphatic utterances and something indescribable that emerges from communication that relies so little on actual words.
This is the theme that runs through his most recent painting series, which features single human eyes in close detail.
“My art is a way of communicating,” he says, “and the eye is the most expressive part of the body. You don’t have to talk to know what a person is feeling.”
‘Doubt Always Came From Other People’
Q: Is it important for people viewing your art to know about your disability?
A: I’d rather be known as an artist with a disability, rather than a disabled artist. It might help me make more connections if it was the other way — being known as a disabled artist. But I would rather be known for the work.
Q: Did you have any self-doubt when you were first encouraged by a high school teacher to create art?
A: I always wanted to do art. But doubt always came from other people. They didn’t know how to make art accessible for me.
Q: How did you develop the headstick that you use to paint?
A: I call it “the crown.” I have been using it since I was seven; I just decided to use it for painting as well. The people who invented it are Kennedy Krieger — they’re pretty well-known around the world — they make adaptive equipment for independent living. They added additional features on there to help with painting.
Q: How do relationships take shape with the people who assist you with creating art — stretching canvas, changing brushes, etc.?
A: I’ve always said that a King Gimp painting isn’t only me. The truth is that there is a community behind every painting. There’s the person who comes who mixes the paint, stretches the canvas, gives the structure, does the cleanup afterward…all these things that need to happen to get that painting on the canvas.
Most people think that I only get the benefit of those relationships. It works both ways. They get to feed off my determination.
For example, I was set up to work with a student at Towson University named Michael. He was a guy who always put off everything. He would say “I’ll meet you at 2 p.m.,” and it would end up being 3, 4, 5 before he got there. By being around me, he saw that you can’t always wait until the last minute. He started being a hustler himself because he fed off the skills that I was teaching him. Today, Michael is very determined and has the same work ethic. Now he’s an early bird, because of a professor. See how things all change?
A Privilege, Not a Mistake
A recent TV commercial for a Baltimore-area lawyer carried the tagline “cerebral palsy is a mistake.” Dan resented this intensely — while his CP, like many cases, was the result of medical error, he has always seen his disability as a privilege, a gift. He didn’t really know how to whine about anything, his wife says; he just knew how to fight really hard for everything.
As a result, Dan is a firm believer that everyone, not just artists or people with disabilities, has to constantly push themselves to the next level or else risk becoming stagnant. It was a message that he was pleased to express through a Super Bowl commercial in 2001 (the same year, incidentally, that the Baltimore Ravens won). USA Today declared it the best commercial that year — it was a rare instance of the media depicting a person with disability as powerful and self-actualized.
Self-pity, Dan says, is what he hates more than anything. From the commercial to the King Gimp film to the art he continually creates, he is determined to represent a visionary way of living:
“Let’s be enlightened about who we are, as individuals.”
In keeping with that message, his advice to other artists and to other people with disability is the same.
“Always look at life as a challenge, and take it as it comes.”
Dan’s latest work is now on view at the Fleckenstein Galleries in Baltimore.