An Artist’s Life
William Flewellen Heard, 37, was leaving Harvey’s, a popular Tupelo, Miss., restaurant, last winter when one of the hostesses noticed his paint- streaked wheelchair and followed him out the door, asking, “Are you an artist?”
“I know who he is!” cried the other hostess. “He’s the guy who does that painting!” She flung her arm out as if casting paint across a canvas.
It wasn’t the first time William was recognized that evening. When he arrived at his table, a pretty woman at a neighboring table, seated between her husband and toddler, smiled brightly and waved to him. Twice.
“Happens all the time,” he muttered apologetically.
It is almost an understatement to call William a celebrity. He has been featured on FOX TV news and in a Jackson, Miss., newspaper article; he is recognized in the grocery store by school children, counsels people on the phone for hours and was urged by Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed to help a woman who was dangerously ill.
“I asked him recently to speak to a young woman who almost died twice from an eating disorder,” says the mayor, who owns several of William’s paintings. “Few people have more difficult challenges than William, and to be both an accomplished artist and an inspiration at the same time, not many can claim that legacy.”
William Flewellen Heard, 37, of Tupelo, Miss., has become a celebrated artist. During rehabilitation at Shepherd Center for a spinal cord injury, he tried painting but then stopped after he returned home. Seeking to improve his life, he returned to painting years later, and now his unique work has grown in popularity.
William broke his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae in an automobile accident in 2000. When he arrived at Shepherd Center for rehabilitation three months later, his nurse told him: “Your old life is over. I’m birthing you today.”
During recreation therapy at Shepherd, William decided to try painting. As a teenager, he had sprayed the undercoat on children’s furniture and baskets that his mother painted and sold at her store, Daddy’s Duck. At Shepherd, he painted with a brush taped to his wrist and continued briefly when he got home, but he hadn’t come to terms with his disability and led an unhealthy life – physically and mentally.
“I stopped and prayed and decided I had to do something with my life and get stronger,” he says.
“I was dependent on Mom and everyone else to do things for me. I was determined to become independent.”
He returned to rehabilitation with a vengeance and exercised constantly. He also watched a movie about painter Jackson Pollock and was fascinated by his “drip” technique. “I wanted to try what he was doing,” William says, “but I couldn’t hold a brush.”
An operation on the tendons in his wrist enabled him to regain use of his right hand. It enabled him to drive and become self-sufficient, and to experiment with Pollock’s technique by dipping a Styrofoam ball with a spoon stuck in it into cups of paint, then drizzling it onto a canvas. One day he accidentally dripped paint from one cup into the others and noticed that rather than blending, the paints retained their respective colors. Curious, he emptied one cup’s contents onto the canvas, turning and shaping as he poured.
Artist William Flewellen Heard is known for the blending of vibrant colors in his paintings.
“The colors exploded,” he said. Thus was born the technique that has generated art shows in Charlotte, N.C., Seaside, Fla., New Orleans, La., and Jackson, Miss., and landed his works in private collections, galleries and a few museums. He has painted everything from abstracts to nudes to homes to cityscapes, but it is his butterflies that became his trademark.
“The butterfly was the image that first came to me,” he says. “It’s got all the colors, and it’s a symbol of rebirth.”
William donated a butterfly painting to Shepherd Center and further shared his rebirth by joining an organization for people with disabilities called Living Independently for Everyone (LIFE). While visiting others with disabilities, he was struck by how many were isolated, poor and depressed. He started an art class for them at his mother’s store and included trips to the mall, restaurants and other activities to involve them in everyday life.
He was so successful that he now receives grants to support his work and teaches in the schools where children not only get to paint, but also learn to understand and relate to people with a disability. William’s foundation, Our ArtWorks, also organizes a dressy art show that has become one of the major social events of the year.
He has won numerous civic awards for his efforts, but perhaps his greatest satisfaction has been bringing joy and a sense of community to those who had neither. Annette Rinehart of Booneville, Miss., drives her son 31-year-old son, Brad, 45 minutes each way so he can attend William’s class. Brad, who has epilepsy, is unable to drive or work, but is now selling his own sculptures, birdhouses and angels.
“He did not have anything to look forward to before art,” Annette says. “Now, every day he wants to know if he’s going to class.”
“I have friends now,” Brad says. “I can call and visit with them and do things. William is a great friend who loves to help others.”
“Wherever William goes, he’s like a missionary,” says Susan Heard, his mother. “People are just transformed. There was one guy who never talked to anyone and never used the telephone. William called him every day and became his friend; he even took him to get a tattoo. Now he’s calling people and getting out. William also took them to the beach, and they went deep sea fishing and were interviewed on the local radio station.”
Yet another time, William and two of his students painted their hair red, white and blue, just for the heck of it.
William says he is “amazed” at how his life has turned out, adding: “It’s a lot of fun. I’m very thankful and lucky.”
His mother is in awe of his transformation. “William has made me believe in God,” she says. “I didn’t before. Between Shepherd Center and God, he is making a mark that would have been impossible without his injury. When you see him with children and adults, you know somebody has intervened.”
The Creative Process
Artist William Flewellen Heard has created a unique method of painting.
William Flewellen Heard, 37, does most of his painting in a studio on Lake Bud Isaiah, 30 minutes from Tupelo, Miss. Once a two-car garage and now twice that size, it is a chaotic collection of finished and unfinished paintings, blank canvases, tools, boxes, rags and a waist-high wall of empty cans streaked with dried paint.
William paints in a large back room while his sleeping sidekick, Primo the pug, snorts on a blanket in a corner. A square, wheeled table occupies the center of the room, and along the walls are long, low tables, each table bearing cans of house paint in varying shades of the same color. In effect, the whole room is his palette, and the concrete floor is his drop cloth.
One day last winter, William took a pizza pan from a pile and rolled to the table of whites. He knocked the top off a can, churned the paint with a stick and then drew a long strip of white on the pan. Spinning left, he wheeled to the blues, opened the midnight blue and repeated the process, layering the dark rich pigment next to the white. Then, he did the same with a light blue.
Spinning again, he crossed to the greens, smacked a can with a stick and the top fell to the floor. Ignoring the top, he stirred the paint and applied a strip of kelly green next to the dark blue, in the process dripping paint on his arm, black T-shirt and the drop cloth in his lap. In time, he and his clothing will wear nearly as much paint as the canvas.
Next, at the table of yellows, he added a golden yellow stripe, and as he spun about again and darted to the reds, it was apparent that William was oblivious to the snoring dog, the sound of the furnace, the presence of visitors, everything. Entranced by the creative dance of form and color, his wheeled ballet seems like nothing so much as a child at play.
After adding burgundy, black and a brilliant seam of scarlet, he turned and rolled to a canvas with a thick frosting of white. He adjusted the table, positioned himself above the canvas, tilted the pan and the paint poured
in a wide, psychedelic stream of color. But even as he turned and swirled the pan, each paint retained not only its gleaming color, but also its shape and relationship to the others. The result was a leaping, diving abstract with stunning eruptions of color and an edgy, graceful vitality that was dramatized by the expanse of white he left untouched.
It was unlike anything else in the room, and William said quietly, “I think that’s all I’m going to do to this one.”
He looked up, and the change was remarkable. His skin, normally pale, was pink, his blue eyes were ablaze, and perhaps mindful of what he had overcome to have this moment, William reveled in the pure joy of being alive.
– John Christensen
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.