I want to be known as an artist with a handicap, not a handicapped artist.
The doctors classify me as an incomplete quadriplegic, which basically means I have the use of some of my muscles and not of others. It’s the result of an event that occurred in 1988. The doctors at first thought it was a heart attack, but it turned out to be far worse—I had a collapsed artery in my neck that cut off the blood flow and affected every muscle. I was totally paralyzed from the neck down and was in rehab for eight months. Over the next two years I regained many of my abilities. I was lucky.
So many people in rehab were young kids who’d been in diving or motorcycle accidents— they hadn’t had time to figure out their careers yet. All I had to do was figure out how to paint again. Because one paints largely with the whole arm, the fact that my fingers and wrists didn’t work wasn’t the limitation I thought it would be; I just had to find another way to hold the brush. I had a hand brace made out of metal and Velcro for this purpose. Twenty years later I still paint this way. I tell people my entire life is held together with Velcro. I paint 365 days a year— that’s my physical therapy.
I knew Christopher Reeve pretty well because we used to appear at the same events. When we were both speaking and he went first, I liked to tell the audience that I would have been there earlier, but Chris and I were fighting over the handicapped parking spot.
Chris and Dana Reeve were remarkable people. The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation is a real testament to what they accomplished—it’s awarded more than $77 million in research grants to top scientists around the world. I’m especially impressed by Dana’s program, the Quality of Life Grants, which improves the day-to-day lives of people living with paralysis.
That’s what I’m interested in—helping people live better lives when nothing is physically going to change for them. A lot of it is how you deal with the hand you’re dealt. It’s like poker: You can have a really good hand and lose, or you can have terrible cards and still win. My wife says I’m an incurable optimist; I see the glass threequarters full!
I’ve gotten quite a few awards over the years, but the Christopher Reeve Spirit of Courage Award means a lot to me because it’s kind of a continuation of my involvement with Chris. At his Juilliard School memorial service, where there were several of us in wheelchairs, I remember thinking how important it was that Chris wasn’t seen as the only person who lived with paralysis. Famous people have a tremendous advantage: People want to help us. But what about the people who never go out because there’s no car and driver to take them and they can’t wait two hours at a bus stop for a handicapped accessible bus? Or they get to the subway and find out the elevator is broken?
I never wanted to be a poster boy for quadriplegics, and I’m sure Chris didn’t, either. But if I can help remind the world that it’s real people in these wheelchairs, and that we need to pay attention, then I’m proud to do it.
The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation’s 18th annual gala, A Magical Evening, at which Chuck Close will be receiving the Christopher Reeve Spirit of Courage Award, will be held on Monday, November 10, at the New York Marriott Marquis, 1535 Broadway. For tickets, for more information, or to make a donation, call 212-763-8594 or visit christopherreeve.org.