The quadriplegic painter who discovered his talent through tragedy
Brenton Swartz’s brush remains steady as he applies light strokes of paint to the canvas propped in front of him. Swartz’s hyper-realistic style requires perfect precision. What’s astounding is that he controls the brush entirely with his mouth. His hands lie limp at his side – he has been paralysed from the neck down since 1994. Swartz was 15 years old when he was hit in the neck by a stray bullet that his brother accidentally let off while playing with a gun. After eight months in hospital, he was told he would never walk again. He’d lost his mother just two months before. Now his mobility.
Unable to provide the necessary care, Swartz’s family sent him to a home for the disabled. He completed matric in 1998 and decided to take on college. Despite the challenges, he received a diploma as an architectural draughtsman. While Swartz persevered to achieve the same qualifications as his able-bodied peers, the reality was that he still struggled to find a permanent job. His creative journey began in 2008 at a home for paraplegics, where he saw others painting with their mouths and feet. “Mouth painting became my life,” he explains. “I needed to find a way to express myself and a reason to live.”
His process begins with a rough pencil sketch and is completed by painting over that using an extended brush that he grips with his mouth. When he started, each painting took roughly three months to complete. Now he only needs a week. His works are sold as is, and are reproduced on cards, calendars and mugs. In addition to the income this brings, he supplements his art supplies with a bursary from the Foot and Mouth Painters’ Association. With precision, sheer determination and a stroke of talent, Swartz challenges people’s perceptions, and encourages others like him to push beyond what they think they are capable of. “Follow your dreams,” he says. “Because at the end of the day they keep you moving.”