By Marshall V. King
ELKHART -- Chad Friesen peers through a hole in the cushioned rest for his head. He saw his painting emerging. He sees his right hand grasping his left wrist. In his left hand is a thick brush moving red and yellow acrylic paint across a canvas.
His 39-year-old hands are no longer strong enough to squeeze the bright acrylic paints from the tubes, so his mother, Carol Nickel, does that. "What color?" she asks. "Do a combination of color because that always turns out best."
"Red and yellow," says Friesen.
"Which yellow?" she says as she kneels alongside his massage chair from which he paints face-down and the table built for his painting.
"Sunflower yellow," he says.
That's one of his favorites. On the wall of his mother's house, across Pierre Moran Avenue from where he lives, hangs a new painting of three bright sunflowers framed by a purple and red sky. It's not a finely detailed picture that someone may mistake for a photo. The bright colors attract people. When he had cataracts, the paintings were more muted, but the mixture of colors has always been rich. Thick ridges of bright colors comprise pictures and in every one is an eye, two crescents with a dot in the middle.
It's God's eye. When Friesen lived in Jerusalem with his family from age 4 to 9, he saw eyes painted on doorways of Muslim homes in the old city. When he started painting a few years later, he put an eye in every picture. For him, it's a symbol of God's presence, even when he's painting about war and pain. Painting, and putting that eye on last, is a way Chad prays.
"It helps me deal with some things in my life. Painting is sometimes like a prayer to me," he says. The paintings, even the abstract ones, express what is hard for him to put into words.
Friesen's mind is sharp. His body doesn't always cooperate. He was 8 when he started having seizures. He also has ataxia, which means he's uncoordinated. He first used a wheelchair in 1979 and now relies on it, powering himself with his legs to get around.
As a boy, he begged his mom to paint. She was worried about the mess he'd make. He kept begging. "I finally gave in and just got rug swatches," she says. Even now, when she helps steady his arm and squeezes the paint on for him, the canvas is on a rug swatch.
For many years, he lay on his stomach to paint. The muscle spasms bounced his body and ruined his shoulders. He had to stop painting because of the pain. "I couldn't get my feelings out," he says. For about a year, he lost a way to pray.
Mike Gingerich, a vocational rehabilitation therapist, heard about the situation and suggested Friesen use a chair designed for back massages. So now, someone steadies him as he springs from his wheelchair and then lies face-down on the chair.
For 45 minutes to an hour a day, he paints. He doesn't always know what. Lately his work has become really abstract, he says. In his room, with sunlight streaming in two corner windows, he lies face-down and paints. "This is hard," he says.
It's not a complaint. He doesn't do much of that. He doesn't say he has a disability, though he needs $1,500 in medication a month to control his seizures and worsening ataxia, which now prevents him from riding a three-wheel bike. He exercises on a stationary bike and by swimming. "I don't really mourn the losses. Sometimes I do, but not often," he says.
He thinks about what he can do. When he's in water, he can walk. And when he's in his massage chair, he can paint. "That's his life, to be able to paint," his mother says.
"You should see the children," she says of when his paintings are displayed. "They want to come up. Children want to come up and they want to touch."
One time, one of the children asked, "Does God have eyes?"
Contact Marshall V. King at email@example.com.