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The Typewriter Artist

Paul-Smith-Young-435x222photo courtesy of http://cerebralpalsy.org/

photo courtesy of http://cerebralpalsy.org/

The typewriter artist

Excerpts taken from the cerebralpalsy.org article A tribute to the typewriter artist

It’s been six years on June 25 since the world lost Paul Smith at the age of 85, but not before several generations had an opportunity to admire his distinct and intricate gallery of art. His legacy continues.

Known worldwide as the “Typewriter Artist,” Paul Smith’s story spans eight decades, seven in which he created typewriter art. Having a severe case of spastic cerebral palsy that affected his speech, his mobility, and his fine motor coordination, Paul’s life began when opportunities were limited.

In his time, Paul was not entitled to a mainstream education – he was not taught to read or write. Physicians were still recommending that children with his form of cerebral palsy be institutionalized. And, medical care wasn’t as progressive.

When Paul was born on September 21, 1921 in Philadelphia, his doctors didn’t believe he would live too long. He beat those odds by living to the ripe old age of 85 – far longer than the average lifespan for an adult male.

It would not be the only time he beat the odds. Though his condition made it difficult for him to grasp pens or pencils, eat, dress, or express his thoughts, he persevered. It took him 16 years to learn to speak – and 32 to learn to walk.

But Paul’s claim to fame – the achievement that has made him a source of inspiration to people in the art community and at all levels of ability – is his mastery of a common office machine as an artistic medium. He paints with a manual typewriter.

And by the time Paul quit creating beautiful pictures with thousands of delicate key strokes, he left behind hundreds of extraordinary, thought-provoking pieces that make a statement not only about their subject matter, but especially about how they were created.

photo courtesy  of http://cerebralpalsy.org/

photo courtesy of http://cerebralpalsy.org/

Each keystroke helps is carefully placed

There’s not a lot of information about Paul’s early life other than he was born with cerebral palsy, his family moved from Philadelphia to Hollywood, Florida, near trains and train tracks – common subjects of his earlier art creations.

Paul developed an interest in creating typewriter art when he was 11-years-old and had started toying with a typewriter his neighbor had discarded. His creations became an outlet for a child that turned to new ways to express himself since being non-verbal he could not easily convey his feelings to others. Because he could not easily grip artist’s tools such as pencils, pens, markers, pastels or paint brushes, he turned to the typewriter.

The subjects of Paul’s art were publicly recognizable. He enjoyed creating pictures of animals, still lifes, nature, war scenes, spiritual symbols, and outdoor scenes. His works included his childhood fascination with trains; his affinity towards a squirrel he befriended; spiritual leaders such as the Pope, Jesus and Mother Theresa; war scenes and country hero’s. He also created pictures of well-known art he admired, including Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

photo courtesy  of http://cerebralpalsy.org/

photo courtesy of http://cerebralpalsy.org/

It’s not so much the subject that is remarkable about Paul’s work, it’s the painstaking skill of using symbols on a typewriter to form perfect replicas of existing work, and innovative representations of his surroundings.

Paul’s images, perhaps surprisingly, were created using only a handful of symbol keys – !, @, #, %, ^, _, (, &, ) – which were accessible along the top row of his typewriter keyboard. Remarkable, when a person considers that manual typewriters required the ribbons to be positioned, the roller to be adjusted, and the paper to be secured. Typewriters, of that era, left no room for error since erasing mistaken keystrokes was not a clean option.

As he typed, he would secure the shift key in a locked position to make sure that he didn’t inadvertently type numbers. He used his left hand to steady his right. Different symbols created the look of varied textures, and depending on the look Paul was attempting to achieve, he would adjust the spacing to type the symbols in short proximity, or far. And, he adjusted the roller to perfect spaces between lines.

photo courtesy  of http://cerebralpalsy.org/

photo courtesy of http://cerebralpalsy.org/

As technology advanced, his art evolved. The invention of color typewriter ribbons, gave Paul the flexibility to layer in color. He would soon press his thumb on the ribbon to create shade. By using keystrokes, repetition, and an eraser, his pictures took on less of a pen-and-ink look and more of a pastel and charcoal appearance. He would preplan his approach and develop a scaling system to reproduce photographs.

photo courtesy  of http://cerebralpalsy.org/

photo courtesy of http://cerebralpalsy.org/

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