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Disabled artist finds human connection in canvas


“It’s not possible for me to be, to render things perfectly realistically and get fine, fine details,” says painter Tim Lynn. “And I end up getting a lot of accidents, which are often the best part of the painting. Drips and smears and smudges.”

Lynn describes himself as an expressionist painter – one who applies abstract expressionism techniques to figurative painting. His style can be described as bold and loose. The son of Bay Area artists, Lynn works from his studio in Berkeley, California. But to be an artist, he must overcome significant physical obstacles.

“All the movement I use for painting doesn’t come out of my fingers or my wrists,” he says. “It comes from my shoulders and my biceps and gravity. If I want to draw a line down, I just touch the canvas and let gravity pull my arm down. So I have limited control.”

When Lynn was 23 years old, his life changed.

Lynn was in his senior year at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, living an active life. “I was running around, and playing sports, and climbing mountains, and camping, and bicycling, and swimming, and scuba diving, and traveling around the world, and making love, and being independent. The whole world was sort of open to me.” Back then, Lynn says, he “wanted to do everything.”

At the time, Lynn lived with roommates in a house with a swimming pool. On July 10, 1988, he decided to take a swim. “It was a hot day in the summer. I dove into the pool and hit the bottom of the pool with my head and broke my neck. And became paralyzed from the shoulders down.”

After Lynn’s accident and rehabilitation, noted painter and family friend, Joan Brown, encouraged him to make art. He began to paint with her in her studio. After a couple of years, Lynn applied to the MFA program at the University of California, Berkeley, where his mentor taught. U.C. Berkeley was known throughout the country for its disabled students program that provided broad accessibility services. Brown died before Lynn started his graduate studies in 1993, but she remains an important influence.

“She was so passionate about art,” he says, “and believed so much in its value and its importance in your personal life, and history, and culture, and spirituality.”

At Berkeley, Lynn developed the tools that helped him become an artist. The solid aluminum splint securing his fingers and arm was one of them. The splint has a clamp where Lynn can place a brush, but he also ends up using his mouth.. “So, my mouth at the end of the day is always covered with paint. Cadmium orange, which can’t be too healthy for you.”

As he demonstrates, Lynn spits out some paint and dust, then dips his brush into some water.

“Joan started me out in acrylic paints,” he says. “They’re the least toxic just because there’s no solvents.” Lynn says his largest painting is seven by nine feet. It’s a challenge for him to paint on a large scale. “It requires a bunch more help, because I have to constantly turn the canvas to paint the bottom or the top or the side. Makes me a little bit more dependent on help.”

Lynn says feeling more dependent makes painting less fun. “So the larger the painting it is, the more disabled I feel sometimes. But that’s not always true, either because painting large is really, it’s painting life size. It gives you the ability to paint life size and big brush strokes and lots of paint.” In the end, Lynn says, that’s fun for him.

Lynn often paints in a series of pictures.

“I started a series of tigers,” he says. Lynn found himself intrigued by stripes “and how stripes can define a shape.” He started painting tigers in various sizes, including life size. “They’re huge creatures. It felt good to feel their whole form and the stripes and the colors,” Lynn says. “It almost felt like cheating because they almost painted themselves.”

Whether at rest or in motion, Lynn’s tigers nearly pulse with life. Muscles bunch and stretch under deep black stripes and brilliant orange fur. Tim’s characteristic drips add energy, as though these animals could spring from their canvas in an instant.

“I guess I find that with most imagery that I paint, less is more,” he says. “It’s that strange, magical thing that your imagination does. Why reading a book can be much better than the movie. Why people look much better in a bathing suit than they look naked. The imagery becomes more alive, more real than being totally realistically portrayed. And I find almost in all my paintings there’s some parts of the canvas that need to be free, need to be open, and less defined. Left to your imagination.”

Lynn says he’s not always in the mood to paint. His life is stressful, he says. Lynn struggles with depression. But when he does paint, it focuses him. “I love the simplicity. I love the directness. I love the physical humanness, the touching, the feeling the canvas, the slippery paint. I love translating things through your eyes, and your brains, and out your arm, out the stick with some hair tied on it.”