Speaker* Creativity* Inspiration* Motivation

A paralyzed painter with an artful palate

Monday, May 26, 2003


LINCOLN PARK -- Gripping the paintbrush tightly between his teeth, Michael Monaco carefully trims the white dove he created with royal blue paint. By moving his head side to side, his paintbrush meets the canvas with precision.

Monaco, 39, is paralyzed from the shoulders down.

"I paint better with my mouth than I ever did with my hands," he says.

He was 16 when he injured his spinal cord, a result of drunk driving. Monaco, then 6 feet tall, 190 pounds, and looking at a future of football scholarships, got into a car with friends after a night of drinking. They left one party for another.

He was seated behind the driver of a car that slammed into the back of a Cadillac at 80 mph in November 1979. One passenger was killed, and the other five sustained various injuries. It took almost two hours and the Jaws of Life to free Monaco from the mangled car.

"I remember when I came to, a girl on the scene was lifting my arm up. I saw my arm but didn't feel it," he says. "I knew I was in trouble."

He spent the next few years adjusting to life in a wheelchair, and endured hours of physical therapy. During that time, a nurse taught him to sign his name with a pen in his mouth.

"From there, it started," he says. "I knew that I had to go out and live life."

Monaco earned his GED, and later an associate's degree in business from the County College of Morris.

He bought his first computer in 1984, along with a special mouse that Monaco can move with his mouth. He taught himself, by experimenting, how to build spreadsheets and work on the computer. Since, he has created several Web sites for himself, friends, and businesses. He also runs his own business from home, Stat Nursing - a home care agency that helps clients with disabilities ranging from short-term care to the elderly.

"Computers have really put the disabled community in touch with the world," he says. "It's helped people get jobs, communicate, and not feel so isolated."

It's a great form of entertainment for Monaco, too. He spends hours online chatting about politics, health tips, and religion.

"Some people get so nasty. It's unbelievable," he says, shaking his head. "But I love debate, so I keep going back. I can't even remember what I used to do before the computer."

After the accident, Monaco turned to Scripture for inspiration. He holds Bible studies at his home, and teaches Sunday school. He's an active member at Beth Israel Messianic Congregation in Garfield.

"I had to rely on the Lord to deal with what I have," he says. "God is truth and He helps us through everything if we trust in Him. Living through this disability has been one of the toughest battles. It took away my physical, spiritual, and, at times, emotional functions in a matter of seconds."

Monaco also turned to painting to inspire himself and spark inspiration in others.

"Life is so short and so delicate," he says. "You have to make it the best. What better way then to share God's creations through art?"

He paints for the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, a worldwide company that sells the work of more than 500 disabled artists. The money collected from sales of cards, calendars, wrapping paper, and paintings is pooled together and distributed among the artists. The more you paint, the more money you receive. Seniority is also a factor.

The association was founded in 1956 by a German artist who lost the use of his hands, and is operated by member painters. Some painters earn six-figure salaries - but not Monaco.

"All the paintings are beautiful," Monaco says. "We can definitely hold our own."

There is one painting that Monaco will never sell. One of his firsts, it is a portrait of the biblical tale of Rapture. The painting, mostly blue with striking colors, is an image of the saints caught up in the last days set in modern time.

"It's too close and important to me to sell," he says. "I love looking at it."

A collection of Monaco's paintings is on display through June at the Barn Theatre, located on Skyline Drive in Montville.

Eman Varoqua's e-mail address is varoqua@northjersey.com

*Michael Monaco's paintings sell for $300 to $1,200. It takes him about 15 hours to complete an oil painting.

*Instead of mixing paints on a palette, Monaco has to improvise and mix them directly on the canvas. "It's too complicated to have someone pour them on a palette for me to mix and then apply," he says.

*He can't reach the top of the canvas with his mouth. So he paints the bottom half first, then flips the painting upside down, and completes the top portion by painting inverted.

*When he paints, the paintbrush has to be on the right side of his mouth. He thinks it's because he used to be right-handed.