Born in 1921 during a time when people with cerebral palsy received little support and garnered little attention from the community, Paul Smith lived a full life painting intricate pictures with what, at the time, was a common office machine – the manual typewriter.
It will be nine years on June 25 since the world lost Paul Smith at the age of 85, but not before several generations had an opportunity to admire his distinct and intricate gallery of art. His legacy continues.Known worldwide as the “Typewriter Artist,” Paul Smith’s story spans eight decades, seven in which he created typewriter art. Having a severe case of spastic cerebral palsy that affected his speech, his mobility, and his fine motor coordination, Paul’s life began when opportunities were limited.
In his time, Paul was not entitled to a mainstream education – he was not taught to read or write. Physicians were still recommending that children with his form of cerebral palsy be institutionalized. And, medical care wasn’t as progressive.
When Paul was born on September 21, 1921 in Philadelphia, his doctors didn’t believe he would live too long. He beat those odds by living to the ripe old age of 85 – far longer than the average lifespan for an adult male.
It would not be the only time he beat the odds. Though his condition made it difficult for him to grasp pens or pencils, eat, dress, or express his thoughts, he persevered. It took him 16 years to learn to speak – and 32 to learn to walk.
But Paul’s claim to fame – the achievement that has made him a source of inspiration to people in the art community and at all levels of ability – is his mastery of a common office machine as an artistic medium. He paints with a manual typewriter. And by the time Paul quit creating beautiful pictures with thousands of delicate key strokes, he left behind
hundreds of extraordinary, thought-provoking pieces that make a statement not only about their subject matter, but especially about how they were created.
Each keystroke helps is carefully placed
There’s not a lot of information about Paul’s early life other than he was born with cerebral palsy, his family moved from Philadelphia to Hollywood, Florida, near trains and train tracks – common subjects
Paul developed an interest in creating typewriter art when he was 11-years-old and had started toying with a typewriter his neighbor had discarded. His creations became an outlet for a child that turned to new ways to express himself since being non-verbal he could not easily convey his feelings to others. Because he could not easily grip artist’s tools such as pencils, pens, markers, pastels or paint brushes, he turned to the typewriter.
The subjects of Paul’s art were publicly recognizable. He enjoyed creating pictures of animals, still life, nature, war scenes, spiritual symbols, and outdoor scenes. His works included his childhood fascination with trains; his affinity towards a squirrel he befriended; spiritual leaders such as the Pope, Jesus and Mother Theresa; war scenes and country hero’s. He also created pictures of well-known art he admired, including Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
It’s not so much the subject that is remarkable about Paul’s work, it’s the painstaking skill of using symbols on a typewriter to form perfect replicas of existing work, and innovative representations of his surroundings.
Paul’s images, perhaps surprisingly, were created using only a handful of symbol keys – !, @, #, %, ^, _, (, &, ) – which were accessible along the top row of his typewriter keyboard. Remarkable, when a person considers that manual typewriters required the ribbons to be positioned, the roller to be adjusted, and the paper to be secured.
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