The Remarkable Life of Artist Paul Smith

Many people became acquainted with the realities of life with cerebral palsy through the 1989 movie My Left Foot. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for portraying writer and artist Christy Brown, who created numerous works of art using the only limb that his birth defect left in his control.

typewriter artWhat many people don’t realize about this inspiring story is that it’s far from isolated. While cerebral palsy can dramatically affect the brain’s ability to control motor skills, movement and speech, it cannot limit the creativity and potential of determined patients. 

Artist Paul Smith is a shining example of this. Born in Philadelphia with severe spastic cerebral palsy, Smith was unable to feed, dress or bathe himself. He could not attend school as a young child because of his inability to control his hands and face.

But at age 11, Smith discovered the typewriter.

A Ray of Light

His neighbor had discarded an old typewriter. Smith found it and began playing around with it. While he could not hold a pen or paintbrush steady, he discovered that he could control one hand with the other well enough to press keys at will on the typewriter.

He mainly used the symbol keys along the top row of the keyboard: –!, @, #, %, ^, -, (, &, ) –. But as he refined his art, he had to do a lot of planning ahead of time. Manual typewriters, of course, require ribbons to be positioned, the roller and the paper to be secured… and, as any typing student from the pre-computer days will remember, you couldn’t backspace or erase.

Smith would secure the shift key in a locked position to make sure he didn’t accidentally type numbers. He used different symbols to represent different textures, and would adjust the spacing to type the symbols in short proximity, or far. Between lines, he adjusted the roller to the spacing he desired. To create shading, he pressed his thumb against the ribbon.

Smith started out creating pictures of animals and nature. He progressed to a more personal style that reflected his personality: his childhood fascination with trains; his affinity for a squirrel he befriended; spiritual leaders such as the Pope, Jesus and Mother Teresa.

He even used the typewriter to recreate masterworks like the Mona Lisa, Washington Crossing the Delaware and Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker.

But a signature Smith touch was including a ray of light — a lighthouse, sunbeams, starlight — to represent a symbol of hope.

Defying the Odds

Smith’s artistic ability was never limited by his cerebral palsy. It was only when his eyesight weakened as he entered his 80s that his artistic output declined. He died at the age of 85 in 2007.

When Smith was born in 1921, doctors predicted he would not live long. Children with cerebral palsy who did survive infancy were often institutionalized at that time.

Today, despite many medical and social advances taking place, there is still a widespread perception that birth defects like cerebral palsy eliminate a child’s potential. Smith shows that it’s entirely the opposite: it can be the very thing that takes creativity to startling heights.

Who We Are

The Oshman Firm is a New York City-based law firm that has helped families of children with cerebral palsy when the defects was caused to to medical negligence. We think it’s important to share inspiring stories like that of Paul Smith.

If you or someone you love needs support for a case concerning birth defect, let us at The Oshman Firm help you get the resources you deserve. Call us at (800) 400-8182 or fill out the form on the right side of this page.


image credit: Pinterest


Ted Oshman has been with The Oshman Firm since 1988 serving clients for over 25 years. Learn more about Ted's background and featured practice areas here.

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