Friday | December 15, 2017
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‘Painting set me free’: Accomplished Kona artist overcomes disability with expressive attitude

KAILUA-KONA — Paintbrush in mouth, Kirk O’Hara positions himself at his easel at Alii Gardens Marketplace.

With a flick of his head and neck and tool firmly clenched between his teeth, O’Hara glides the brush over his creation, adding an acrylic glaze that seemingly makes the focal point of his work pop off the canvas.

Known better as “Paintmouth,” O’Hara has painted professionally — without the use of his hands — for about three decades. It’s a means for him to escape what he calls his “situation.”

“It was always in me — painting set me free,” O’Hara said recently at his open-air studio that he and wife, Sharon, set up. “Obviously, I’m in a situation that a lot of people would find binding — you know what I mean? And painting is one of the things that kind of schooled me in how to be free. It set me free. It’s a place where I can express myself. It’s a language that I love.”

O’Hara was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, an abnormal fibrosis of muscle tissue that causes muscle shortening due to joint contractures that can affect the development of the limbs prior to birth. He has limited use of his forelimbs, but that doesn’t interfere with this life or creativity.

“I’m a disabled artist, but I’m not a ‘disabled’ artist — I’m an artist who is disabled. There is a difference and a lot of people don’t get that, you know what I mean?” O’Hara said. “I think I would have been an artist no matter what — it’s the way I’m geared, you know what I’m saying? We adapt to the situations we’re dealt and we use our assets, and, sometimes, we can turn our defects into assets.”

And, that’s just what he did.

Growing up in the 1970s, O’Hara’s mother had to fight to get her son into regular school in Phoenix. In kindergarten and first grade, O’Hara said he used to sit on the ground and write with his hands. Occasionally, he’d switch between his mouth and hands to write.

“But, then, to be up with the other kids, to sit at a regular desk, I ended up switching to my mouth permanently,” he said.

It was also around this time O’Hara’s mother began taking painting lessons.

“I really liked it, so she started teaching me what she learned,” he said. “I would embellish my reports that I got assigned in grade school with some paintings that I would do.”

And, with five competitive brothers in the house, he had to find his niche.

“We would compete on every area and this was a place where I had the freedom to kick their butts,” he said. “Then it became I noticed that there is a dialogue that happens between your appendage and the paint and the brain and the heart. There’s a dialogue that’s going that I enjoy that too then it became that I loved the language.”

After several years honing his skills under a local Navajo painter, O’Hara turned professional at age 15, and remains a full-time artist today. Through the years, he’s worked in studios and taken part in art shows in the Southwest.

His striking mixed-media paintings on a variety of surfaces — canvas, wood, skateboard decks and more — are chock-full of vibrant color and intricate detail, and they’re are also affordable. Long influenced by the Southwest art scene, he has, in recent months since moving to the Big Island, begun to embrace Hawaii’s beauty in his work.

Though upbeat and outgoing today, O’Hara said he has let frustration and anger take over in the past.

“There was a time that I got stuck in that anger and in that self-centeredness and it equals nothing. It doesn’t equal any life, it doesn’t equal any love,” he said.

And with that mindset, O’Hara continues to create unique pieces of art in a new place he calls home.

“I want to learn. I don’t want to just start drawing. I want to understand the art because this is a language to me,” he explained. “Everybody else from all different regions of the world have their own version of this so I’m not only relating on similarities with personalities, I’m doing it with art and the way we talk.”

Visit O’Hara at Alii Gardens Marketplace 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Check out his work on Facebook: Kirk O’Hara AKA Paintmouth and He can be reached directly by calling 480-217-8675.

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