Mississippi Wheelchair-Bound Artist Paints Success from Tragedy

Artist William Heard isn’t your typical painter, and it’s not just because he uses pizza pans instead of paintbrushes.

In fact, if it wasn’t for a fateful car accident in 2000 that left him a quadriplegic, he might not be an artist at all.

“When I first had my accident, I didn’t ever think I’d be able to do anything. I was in a totally depressed state, I just thought my life was over with,” Heard remembers.

Heard, then 25 years old, was a passenger in the back seat of a friend’s car in Tupelo, Miss., when the driver lost control and ran into a tree. When paramedics arrived, Heard, a medic with the Army National Guard at the time, could already feel his neck was broken and lower body paralyzed. Since then he's been paralyzed from the chest down, but has limited movement in his arms.

During rehab therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Ga., the former medic found himself on the opposite end of the doctor’s table, trying to recover both physically and mentally.

One of his exercises involved painting, which turned out to be the perfect medicine.  Eleven years later, now zipping around his Tupelo art studio in a paint-covered wheelchair, he continues taking several doses a day.

“I guess you can tell by looking at my wheelchair, and my paint clothes, and my paint shoes, it’s just the more colors the better,” Heard laughingly says.

Today his paintings sell anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 a piece. His most popular are the vivid, color-filled portraits of a butterfly — each of which carries a deep, personal meaning to Heard. “A butterfly means, resembles being reborn, and I guess from my accident I was reborn. So in a way, I guess I’m a butterfly.”

Initially he said he had a hard time painting due to his paralysis, which includes his fingers. His dexterity was so limited that gripping anything, much less a paintbrush, was a daunting and frustrating task. But a special wrist surgery solved that problem by causing his thumb to pop out whenever he bends his wrist down and then pop back in when he lifts his wrist back up, allowing Heard to grip and paint using his unique, chef-like painting tools.

Before putting his bright mixtures of paint to canvas, Heard, who is able to grip cans of paint, combines several colors onto pizza pans, baking sheets, plates, cups, or bowls. He then carries his paint-filled dishes to a piece of canvas set on top of a rolling table, which helps him to move the paintings around. He then drips, pours, and sometimes splashes his fusion of color to the canvas.

“I don’t even own a paint brush,” Heard says with a grin. “The fact I don’t use a paint brush, gives it a different look and texture.” The unique texture and look of his paintings are regularly sought after at art shows and galleries throughout the South.

Heard is now helping others gain their wings at OurArtworks, his Tupelo art studio he opened in 2006 for people suffering from spinal cord and brain injuries.

Twice a week, more than 40 students gather at William’s classes to paint, mold, and piece together their own works of art. Those pieces are featured at four exhibits OurArtworks does each year. But the friendships built and self-confidence gained during each class is what makes the biggest difference in students’ lives.

“Oh he loves coming here,” says Lisa Herndon of her 50-year old son Johnny, whom she started bringing to art class three years ago.

As a young child, Johnny severed his spinal cord and received traumatic brain damage after a sever head injury. During the past three years, his mom says it’s like he’s finally coming out of his shell.

“Johnny never had a best friend until he came to here. And it took him that many years to get a best friend, but he’s got a bunch of best friends now,” Lisa says.