The current exhibition “Persistence” at the Trenton Free Public Library gets to the soul of art — as will be demonstrated by the artists participating in the Trenton Artists Workshop Association program set for March 10 at 2 p.m.
The exhibition features work by regional artists who demonstrate persistence despite what are commonly perceived as obstacles: age, illness, and physical and neurological problems.
The exhibition was initiated and led by Byron Aubrey, son of U.S.1 editor and writer Dan Aubrey.
Participating artists include Mel Leipzig, the octogenarian based in Trenton; Priscilla Algava Snow, a Princeton artist dealing with cancer; two visually impaired Trenton-based artists Ken Alexander and Justin Jedryk; neurologically affected artists Mark Wilkie from Hamilton and Michael Austin from Lawrence; and Rio Felix Smith, a young man from Lawrenceville who became paralyzed after an accident.
For Smith, 24, life was going along without much direction in the late summer of 2015 — three years after graduating from Lawrence High School, traveling abroad, and working at Window Genie. One thing he did know was that he wanted to get really boss at riding a motorcycle. That August he decided to take his father’s bike to a doctor’s appointment just a short distance up the road.
He made what he (twice) referred to as “a silly mistake.” He wanted to push his bounds and see just how well he could ride the motorcycle. So, of course, he drove a little too fast and took a right turn too wide and ended up facing the grill of an oncoming SUV in the left lane.
“I panicked and pulled down on the throttle more,” he says. He ended up in a yard, barely missing a parked car before slamming into a tree. His helmet popped off and he bounced to the ground. Somehow, he says, he didn’t get a head injury from the crash. Also, despite the injury to his spine, he didn’t actually break anything. The impact created a kind of whiplash injury that had doctors thinking it was entirely possible that he would regain all his mobility. His spinal column remains intact.
Two-and-a-half years later, Smith has come far enough in his rehabilitation to move his arms again and regain some dexterity in his fingers. Today he can use a stylus or a pencil to draw. Immediately after the crash, he was limited to a mouth brush. Then, as now, the thought to not draw simply never occurred to him.
Smith’s influences come from short stories he writes (he wants to be a writer for a living), movies he watches, the many books he reads, and of course, from real people.
“I like to take real situations from everyday life and add an element of fantasy to them,” he says. He and his friends once had a conversation about what kinds of fictional characters they might be. He would be a werewolf, he says. Obviously, “because I’m exceptionally hairy.”
He drew up these characters before his accident; after, the idea came back to him, along with a pile of others. So he’s been working on ideas like this, mostly with the help of a digital drawing program on his phone. Smith says he uses a stylus that allows him to draw with ease and do something he’s still not able to do with a pencil – erase. He can’t quite control the pressure, nor does he have the hand dexterity to use an eraser properly. The digital platform gives him all the brush and eraser options he wants, though he admits the program offers its share of creative curve balls. But he enjoys the challenge.
Then again, Smith is not the usual patient in recovery. Relentlessly upbeat and funny (he says the EMTs who took him from his accident told him his jokes in the ambulance cracked them up all the way to the hospital, though the ride is fuzzy for him), Smith says he actually appreciates having become paralyzed. It’s given him a chance to see life in a new way.
“I honestly don’t know if I’d go back and change it,” he says. “Obviously, being paralyzed is not ideal, but I’ve met people and I’ve experienced things I never would have if I’d lived normally.”
As Smith wends his way through rehabilitative therapy, he plans to be a working writer and writes every day. He is also looking at classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
“I obviously struggle,” Smith says. His mother, Family Resource Network Health Care coordinator Tahirih Gomez-Smith, remains his primary caretaker day-to-day and he needs help with most of his daily life. His father is Brett Smith, the director of information risk management and global controls for Citibank.
But he agrees with his doctors that he’ll be back to 100 percent some day. Until then, he keeps in mind this from his Baha’i faith: Go through life not with sullen recognition, but with radiant acquiescence.
That keeps him going a lot. “Life is never fair to anybody,” Smith says. “But you have to always strive forward. I’m struggling, but I’m struggling with purpose.”
Persistence, Trenton Free Public Library, 120 Academy Street, Trenton. Through April 6, Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Artists Talk, Saturday, March 10, 2 p.m. Free. 609-392-7188.