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Disabled Artist Soars Past Limits In His Creations

Tue., Sept. 26, 1995

Jo Maher’s artwork is all about movement.

Movement through time. Movement through space. Movement through various imagined dimensions.

The motion couldn’t be more alien from the aggravating reality of the artist’s daily existence.

Maher is a prisoner serving a life sentence inside a jail of useless flesh.

It has been that way since a frozen winter night in 1980. Driving back to Spokane from Seattle, Maher dozed off at the wheel somewhere near Ritzville.

His Volkswagen tumbled into scrap metal. In that flash of mechanized violence, Maher’s spine snapped like an icicle.

“I couldn’t feel anything,” he says. “I knew something was horribly wrong.”

In the past 15 years, Maher suffered countless indignities and deprivations that would turn most people into bitter shells.

Immoral attendants have stolen him blind to the point where he has no small appliances left.

The worst ones abandoned him, sometimes for days. He was left to sit and soil himself in his wheelchair until rescued by friends.

Landlords told him they didn’t want to rent to someone in a wheelchair. Battles with infections put him in the hospital for months at a time.

With no insurance - Maher was driving without a license at the time of the wreck - he has had to rely on welfare and public agencies for support.

Yet Maher refuses to let the never-ending horrors of his situation ruin him.

“I’ve met a lot of unhappy people in wheelchairs. But being angry or bitter doesn’t hurt anyone but you,” he adds.

“I just try to stay grateful. Every day is a good day if you’re not in the hospital.”

More amazing even than his buoyant outlook is Maher’s struggle to support himself as an artist.

This Saturday will be the fulfillment of a long-held dream. Maher will sell signed prints of his work for the first time in his own show.

Influenced by surrealist Salvador Dali, Maher’s art is filled with complex and bizarre images.

He creates them with glacial patience, toiling hour after hour with colored pencils attached to a mouth wand. Each work, he says, takes between two and three months to complete.

He once held sculpting tools between his clenched teeth and transformed a lump of clay into a powerful bust of Einstein, one of Maher’s few heroes.

“For months after the accident, I didn’t know if I could ever do art again,” says Maher, who began to draw and paint seriously when he was 15.

“Then one day I realized, yeah, it’s going to take a little while but I know I can do it.”

In a drawing he calls “Little Arnie’s World,” a shadowy figure steps through a window onto a moonscape.

In “A Decade of Memories,” a single bloody tear trickles out of a wide, all-seeing eye.

The eye belongs to the former girlfriend who was riding with him in the Volkswagen. She broke her back, but recovered.

“I think I draw better than I did before the accident,” he says. “Not technically. But I put more thought into it, probably because it takes so much time.”

Anyone who thinks they’ve got it rough needs to meet Jo Maher. Needs to see the burning determination in his eyes.

Try to imagine being in his world: Where you can’t wipe your own nose or feed or clean yourself.

Would it break you? Would it make you strong?

“I’m actually a better person because of what happened,” says Maher. “I was a lot wilder. A lot more arrogant.

“This has really put me in my place.”

Jo Maher will show and sell his artwork Saturday, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., at Art Conscious, 1222 N. Pines Road.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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