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Painting with his head, San Jose artist creates a career and inspiration

San Jose Mercury News - 2/5/2018

Feb. 05--SAN JOSE -- Donald Ryker, an artist born with cerebral palsy, struggles to speak.

But his paintings talk for him -- bright and vibrant, active and intelligent.

Demonstrating his technique, Ryker, 32, visited the Children's Discovery Museum on Sunday, using his head to illustrate an elegant tropical bird.

Children and parents struggled to mimic his artistry, with strokes that were enthusiastic but simple, coarse and abstract.

"It's hard!" said Ashley Ren, 4, decorating her paper with expressive splashes of blue, yellow and red.

Ryker's workshop and exhibition, "Everyone Can Create," is a display not just of art, but inclusiveness, determination, and overcoming adversity.

"He's truly an inspiration and example for us all," said Marilee Jennings, executive director of Children's Discovery Museum. "He may have physical limitations, but Don chooses not to be defined by them, and instead sees and creates beauty in the world every day."

Cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder in which the brain does not send the proper signals to the muscles, affects gait and other movements.

But when he paints, Ryker's motions turn focused, deliberate and confident. He wears a hardhat that accommodates a sable-haired brush.

First, he considers his stroke. Then he stretches his neck toward a cup of paint, nodding the helmet and dipping a brush, and fills the canvas with color.

"I like to paint movement," said Ryker in a motorized wheelchair. "My painting can show that -- in the strokes and textures."

He has strong neck muscles, an upbeat attitude and family members who are his helpmates and biggest fans. Every morning, with his mother's help, he practices for an hour at his San Jose home. His work has been displayed at San Jose's Triton Museum of Art, among others.

His family prepares his paints, assembles the brushes and rotates the canvas so he can reach the edges. Sometimes the canvas is upside down, so he can cover every corner with color.

"It is physically hard," said his stepmother Lisa Ryker. "Has to control his body and that takes a lot of energy.

"He is here to show people you can be creative beyond what the world expects you to be," she said. "Art is satisfying to him, personally, and shows the world that there are no limitations."

Ryker started painting in high school, on the recommendation of his high school homeroom teacher.

"It was easy," he recalled. But his technique improved over time, he added. "I got control of the brush."

Figurative artist and renowned instructor Eve Matthias taught him how to keep his acrylic colors very vibrant and clear. She also taught him to see the range of values in an image.

He starts with bright "underpainting," then adds layers of translucent glaze. He experiments with paint thickness, sometimes using sponges or cloth to create the texture of fur and features.

The museum offered adapted hardhats of various sizes for visitors to experiment using Ryker's tools and methods. In advance of the workshop, he created charcoal sketches that will be covered in plastic for visitors to paint.

The templates and hardhats allowed visitors to experience the creative process using Ryker's technique.

Some of the children took their paintings to show him, then left it on the counter to dry.

"It makes the kids think out of the box, rather than traditional ways. You can apply that not only to art but to other things. That, to me, is the message," said Guarav Sirohi, painting with his daughter Maira, age 2.

It is part of the museum's "Art Loft" programming, featuring not only Ryker but other diverse talents, such as African-American rag-rug weaver Ramekon O'Arwisters and artists with autism and developmental disabilities.

"We like to provide a reflection of our community," Lubin said. "We want to honor all different types of creative expression and the different methods to get there. It builds empathy."


"Everyone Can Create," paintings by Donald Ryker, are on display at Children's Discovery Museum until April 15. For more information about Donald Ryker, go to


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