Observers are often mystified by Kari Wagner as she paints, and not because she has cerebral palsy that prevents her from speaking or using her hands. Or because she paints with a brush that is braced at the center of her forehead.
It's just that, as an artist, Wagner doesn’t let on about what she’s creating as she carefully moves her head to brush on the canvas layer upon layer of color.
“She’s very private” when she paints, said her father, Gary Wagner.
The end results are clear, though. Wagner, 43, has drawn from her imagination, from travel pictures, and from master artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe to produce more than 300 paintings — and to simultaneously serve as an inspiration to others when it comes to overcoming obstacles and disabilities.
“Certainly to other individuals with disabilities, she points to a pathway that they might choose to follow to express themselves,” said Dr. Steven Koop, a longtime caregiver of Wagner and the retired medical director of Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare. “But she also serves as an example to you and to me, to see beyond her outward appearance and to what is going on in her mind. … That is a powerful lesson.”
It’s a lesson that is growing right along with the visibility of her art, which will be displayed this fall as part of a showing at the Cambria gallery in downtown Minneapolis.
Wagner has also been commissioned to paint a design for Gillette’s holiday card. And her website has produced a modest number of sales of printed copies of her work — with the proceeds supporting various art therapy programs.
A lack of oxygen at birth left Wagner with severe athetoid cerebral palsy — a form not seen as much in children today because of reductions in birth complications and infant diseases such as jaundice — that caused severe rigidity and lack of mobility in her limbs. Her intellect was largely unaffected, but her inability to speak left her thoughts bottled up.
Wagner now communicates with the help of a tablet that displays and speaks common words and phrases and a sensor on the bridge of her glasses that she uses to select them.
But painting emerged early on as a way to express her deep emotions and thoughts.
“In the beginning, all I could do with my headpiece was move the brush side to side using colors to express my emotions,” Wagner said via the tablet. “Now I can actually create scenes through my painting even though it takes hours to do one.”
One day last week, she spent an hour adding yellow to the base of a pastoral scene. She craned her neck to dip the brush in the yellow palette, then swooped to the canvas, where she used short, precise brush strokes. It takes a toll.
“In the early years, she would paint and just be soaking wet — she was so sweaty,” her father said.
Art therapists assist Wagner by affixing her headgear, holding her paint palette and switching out colors and brushes.
She continues to receive medical care from Gillette, which specializes in treatment of rare and complex diseases and disabilities in children but continues to see patients after they age into adulthood.
Even as Wagner’s parents struggled to communicate with her as a child, they could tell that Wagner loved art. She’d sit in their laps and reach out to get her hands messy with paint and glue.
“By 2, she always wanted to be coloring,” said her mother, Nancy Wagner. “We would just put one [crayon] in her hand and guide her.”
Wagner lives in a group home in Golden Valley and works part time. She said she doesn’t feel nervous painting in front of others or showing her work.
She hasn’t parted with many of her original works, though. Most sit in her parents’ closet until they are brought out for exhibits.
Wagner has sold only two originals, including her favorite — a girl in a blue dress walking below a windy sky and through a field of wildflowers.
Her parents said Wagner is very empathetic and gladly sold the painting to a woman who had lost a daughter in a car crash.
Many paintings are of moments or places that Wagner would struggle to experience in real life, but she said she enjoys thinking about those images and recreating them for others to see.
“It typically will bring me great joy,” she said, “because even able-bodied people have their limitations.”
Wagner also gave away two of her paintings to Koop earlier this year when he retired as Gillette medical director. Koop said he treasures the paintings, though Wagner didn’t explain to her doctor why she chose those two for him.
“She said something to me like, ‘you can figure that out,’ ” Koop recalled. “A sort of classic artist response.”