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Images courtesy Our Artworks.

A Quadriplegic Painter Creates a Paradise for Artists With Disabilities

J.H. Fearless

After a debilitating accident, William Heard took up painting and founded an arts center in Mississippi.

Images courtesy Our Artworks.

This article originally appeared on Creators.

William Flewellen Heard discovered his passion in painting. So he founded an arts center to share the joy of creative expression. Our Artworks is a community arts center in Tupelo, Mississippi, where people with disabilities can create and practice art. Founded by Heard in 2006 and funded by a state grant, the center is a vibrant resource and a community linchpin for its students.

"It's an artist paradise," says Heard. "We introduce students to art and display their work. Any day someone can go to the studio. Students wait on customers. We make sure our homebound artists and out-of-town artists have supplies. We work with students to find their medium, and we travel to find and grow new artists."

William Flewellen Heard in his studio. All images courtesy of the artist and Our Artworks.

Heard is an accomplished artist himself, well-known for his drip paintings. He started painting after a serious accident that broke two vertebrae and landed him in rehabilitation as a quadriplegic. During his rehabilitation, he started painting with a brush, but found it frustrating due to limited use of his hands. "Painting wasn't working how I wanted. The brush was difficult to hold and control even wearing a cuff."

He had all but given up on the idea, when he happened to catch the movie Pollock on late-night TV. Inspired by Jackson Pollock's drip painting, he invented a technique to do it himself, using spoons attached to Styrofoam balls. It worked. Before long, his method developed further to use cups, creating colorful patterns and designs. Heard was hooked.

"I went crazy dripping," he says. "I was drip painting on anything using everything, whatever's in the kitchen, pans, bowls, cups, eating utensils." He gradually took over his mother's art studio, and began a career as a serious artist. Now, Heard works in abstract and realist painting, and shows his work throughout the southern US.

During his rehabilitation, Heard was a client of a nonprofit called LiFe, a group that works to empower people with disabilities. Later, he started working for them to return the service and meet people. When one of his friends told him about a grant funded by the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services, he went for it — and the result is Our Artworks.

"Anyone who has a disability has the ability to create art," Heard says. "There are no mistakes. Art heals the spirit." Our Artworks serves all artists with disabilities, whether they're old or young, of any mobility and skill level.

Drip painting is the most popular technique, but Our Artworks facilitates a wide range of artistic styles and ideas. The studio is currently showing everything from mosaics to stained glass, collage, mixed media, sculpture, and wood work.

The community in Tupelo has been supportive, too. "The community and city's support is overflowing," Heard says. He describes it as a flourishing, creative town where artists help each other out — including some who volunteer with Our Artworks.

Painter Kevin Orr uses a mouth stick and cup.

For artists with or without disabilities, Heard emphasizes the importance of experimenting to find your method and voice, and to build skill. "The boundaries are endless but you have to start somewhere."

Our Artworks combines gallery space with an accessible working studio.

This beaded mannequin was created as part of a group project.

Our Artworks is a grant-funded arts center for people with disabilities. You can keep up with their progress on their site, or if you're near Tupelo, stop in and see the art for yourself.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States.