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There would be no way to know. If eyes could zoom-in like a camera lens to where the bristles of her paintbrush spread the creamy rust-colored paint onto the canvas, there would be no way to know she doesn't use her hands to paint. There would be no way to know. She would probably prefer it that way.

In Greenpoint and Williamsburg, Brooklyn where more than 3,000 artists live and work in renovated buildings like the old Girdle, Pencil and Mustard Factories, Sunny Taylor, 19, might seem like just another young artist trying to make a living doing what she loves.

In a former Cork Factory across from an industrial paint manufacturer, Taylor lives in a loft with her older sister, Astra Taylor, 22, and two other roommates.

If the wind is right the smell of paint fumes fills the air. The subway is about a 15-minute walk away. There are no grocery stores, restaurants or shops. Brick buildings with corrugated metal garage doors line the streets, labeled with enigmatic signs like DiMola Bros., SDJ Trading Corp and Wing Tat Inc.

As a painter, in this industrially-zoned neighborhood, Taylor is not a minority. As a person who paints with her mouth, she is.

The electric wheelchair makes a quiet whirring sound as Taylor moves back, away from the long canvas. Propped against the brick wall in her studio, the painting is the size of a wide door. She looks at the painting with fresh eyes from her new spot, six feet away. The chair, more like a chrome and black plastic golf cart, is what Taylor uses to get around. She sits with her long torso erect. She tilts her head to the side, brushing her short brown hair out of her eyes with the side of her arm. She looks critically at the painting in front of her.

Two revolutionary soldiers sit resting on a porch. Their uniforms are unbuttoned and loose. Actually, they are not revolutionary soldiers in war garb, Taylor said. "Maybe it's the dark colors and my painting style that gives it that feel." Their costumes are high school band uniforms, deep crimson with gold rope trim. She had been reworking the proportions of their faces. Their faces glisten. The greasy oil paint is still wet.

The painting is called "Robbie and Julian." Robbie and Julian are friends from Athens, Ga., where Taylor lived from the time she was five until last June when she moved to Brooklyn.

Before Athens, Taylor lived with parents and older sister in Tucson, Ariz. That is where she was born. It is also where her mother drank contaminated drinking water when she was pregnant with Taylor. The solvent in the water, trichloroethylene, is what caused Taylor to be born with the neuro-muscular disease, arthralgia prososis, her doctors said.

When Valerie Taylor found out she was pregnant with Taylor, she was living in Arizona.

After years of traveling around the country with their band, Taylor's parents, moved to Tucson with their one-year-old daughter Astra. Taylor's dad, Will Taylor, had been accepted as a Ph.D. candidate in the pharmacology school at the University of Arizona.

The neighborhood where they moved was a section of Tucson near several airplane construction and maintenance facilities. Taylor's mother painted in her studio and played with Astra. Taylor's father attended classes at the University.

In the early 1980s, people on the south side of Tucson began to notice a high rate of health problems including cancer, lupus and birth deformities.

About the same time, studies by the Environmental Protection Agency found that the cleaning solvents being used to degrease and clean airplanes had reached the drinking water.

Many of the babies on Taylor's street died. Taylor was born in 1982. She has difficulty wiggling her fingers and toes.

"There were a lot of people on my street with the same disability I have," Taylor said. "It's really weird because outside of that neighborhood I've met only one person with the same disability."

Taking one last look at her painting from a distance, Taylor presses a button on the arm of her chair. She wheels toward a little table next to her canvas. Tubes of paints, crusty with dried pigment clutter one corner of the stand. Tiny cakes of color sit hardening in little compartments.

Scooting forward to the edge of her seat, Taylor leans over the table. With her teeth she picks up a tube of burnt sienna paint. Two fingers hold the tube in place as her teeth act as a wrench to unscrew the lid, soldered shut with paint. After a few turns she spits the lid out onto the counter. Using her hands, she readjusts the tube so her teeth can squeeze the hay colored paint into a little partition on her palette. There's a little smudge of yellow on her lip when she's through.

"I can hold the brush without getting paint in my mouth," Taylor said. "But I worry about the health affects of having the paint near my mouth." Oil paints are toxic. Taylor switched from acrylic to oil paints five years ago because she loved the rich color of this slow drying medium.

"Robbie and Julian" is Taylor's fourth oil painting. She's been working on it since March.

"I'm a perfectionist in a lot of ways, she said. "I will redo a face 14 times if I have to to get it to the point I think is good. That's why I'm slow. I don't think the act of painting with my mouth makes me slow." Dexterity with a paintbrush wasn't always effortless.

Before she mastered maneuvering the lead of a pencil across a page with her mouth, she struggled to use her fingers. "I found writing with my hand rather painful," she said, "the position I had to get in to make my hands work was hard." Using her mouth felt natural. "I can't remember a time when I didn't use my mouth to write or draw."

Drawing for Taylor, preceded writing. Home-schooled by a mother who is a painter and a father who is a musician, the Taylor children were surrounded with books, music and art supplies. "We all just happened to love learning. We always had really nourishing things around us," Taylor said.

"The experience of being home schooled gave us the ability to pursue things on our own. I definitely see that in her whole attitude towards painting," Astra said of her younger sister. A self-taught artist, Taylor learned how to paint by watching her mother at her easel, by reading about the great painting masters and through trial and error.

The trial and error began when Taylor was twelve. "She always drew. Painting came later," Taylor's sister said. "I remember this one day. My mom and I were painting in her studio and Sunny came in and started painting on a little canvas. That day we knew she had found something totally awesome."

That day, Taylor painted a woman with a tiger at her feet. It became the first in a series of twelve paintings of women with animals. She painted friends and family with aardvarks, armadillo and pigs. "Towards the end they started to evolve, Taylor's sister said. "They had a magic to them, but also an absurdity. They became more and more realistic. Her artistic vision became visible."

The real break took place when Taylor switched from acrylic to oil paints, Taylor's sister said. Acrylic paints are flat and dry quickly. "When she switched to oils, her paintings suddenly had this life that was missing before."

"Take your Pig, Sir," named after a Pre-Raphaelite painting by Ford Madox Brown called, "Take Your Son, Sir," is the first painting Taylor did in oil. In Taylor's rendition, a woman with long ringlets of auburn hair stands holding a squirming pig. The pig's legs kick out toward the viewer revealing her little belly. "It is my statement on vegetarianism," Taylor said. "I want people to walk by it and say, what a handsome pig. What's going to happen to it?"

"It was her first painting where her sense of humor manifested," Astra said. "When she did that painting we were like, she has arrived!"

The painting sits on the floor, in a corner of the studio space Taylor shares with her sister. It is among stacks of other paintings that lean against the brick wall. The studio is in a section of the open L-shaped living space. It is on the first floor of the apartment, a few steps above street level.

When Taylor moved into the apartment the landlord installed a wheelchair lift just outside the building's entrance. Using the lift, Taylor can enter the building on her own.

Getting to Manhattan to buy painting supplies is a little trickier. It takes two buses and two hours to get there, if the bus driver stops.

Getting to Enid's, the local bar is a little easier. It's a 20-minute ride in her wheelchair. Taylor goes a couple of times a week to hang out with friends from her neighborhood.

The wheelchair lift isn't needed for Taylor to get to her basement-level bedroom. There is a black-iron spiral staircase in a corner of the apartment. To go downstairs Taylor sits down on the top step and slowly lowers herself step by step. She tries to only make one trip downstairs each day - when she's going to bed.

The apartment costs $3500 per month. Taylor's portion is approximately $750 dollars. Her Social Security insurance covers part of it. It doesn't cover her food, painting supplies or the requisite cup of coffee she buys each morning.

Several years ago, Taylor received $30,000 in a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit against Hughes Aircraft. The money was invested. Several years ago the sum peaked at about $100,000. One of her wheelchairs costs $13,000. She has three. The powder blue van Astra uses to transports Taylor around the city cost more. The expenses add up and the money is disappearing, Taylor said.

"I am hoping to start selling my paintings," Taylor said. She has been speaking with some galleries and agents about her paintings. Currently, she's concentrating on building a larger body of work.

Recognition for her painting ability is what she hopes to receive. She's afraid the focus will be on her disability, she said. "If I didn't have this disability I probably wouldn't get the publicity I'm getting now."

Two weekends ago, a local news crew from Athens, Ga. loaded lights and cameras into Taylor's apartment. The crew spent the weekend filming Taylor for a special called "Small Miracles."

"I'm not a miracle, Taylor said, spitting the word "miracle" out as if it was syrupy sweet cherry medication. "I really don't like the idea of being a news headline that says: Artist Overcomes Disability. One of the only reasons I feel like I should do these interviews is because I really need to sell these paintings."

Visitors trickle into the large brick and wood-beamed lobby of Taylor's building. The walls are covered with paintings by fifty artists. Tenants in the building provide wall space and open their apartment doors to the visitors. Art is displayed on the walls of all the floors. Taylor remains on the first level, wheeling around and talking to other artists and visitors.

She sold a painting for $5000 in Athens. She hopes for more sales.

"I think she's such an amazing painter that her disability will become inconsequential," her sister said.

"I just want it to be, Yes! I'm in a wheelchair, but I also have brown hair and I'm a girl," Taylor said. "I don't really have much desire to go out and climb a mountain. I'd rather sit outside and paint it."

The only climbing Taylor will do tonight is down the stairs to bed. Robbie and Julian's faces are nearing completion. The painting is almost done. Laying down her brush, Taylor makes her way to the spiral staircase.

-- A.L. Brown

Free Williamsburg© | 93 Berry Street | Brooklyn, NY 11211
[email protected] | January 2002 | Issue 22
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