Times Staff Writer

The ravages of muscular disease have left Keith Fires' body distorted and wispy, his arms bone-thin and lifeless.

But the wheelchair-bound Fires, 29, has been able to achieve a creative dignity--and mobility of imagination--in his own artworks: computerlike designs in oils and acrylics that are austerely mathematical and engrossingly intricate.

His latest creations can be seen in "Inspirations: Art by the Physically Challenged"--an exhibit of works by 25 physically disabled artists--at the Brea Civic/Cultural Center's Art Gallery (through Sept. 12).

However, unlike "Inspirations" artists who have use of their hands or can paint by holding brushes in their mouths, Fires is too disabled to do either. He has to rely on relatives or friends to do the actual painting or drawing of his ideas.

"But it's my concept, my sense of art--it's still me ," said Fires of Westminster, who has a degree in computer science from Cypress College. "Art is the state of the mind, not of the body."

Like other "Inspirations" artists, Fires said that art has brought him a greater sense of self-worth. "We want to be accepted for our abilities, not our disabilities. We want the chance that everyone else has to express our ideas through art. And we want to share our ideas like everyone else."

The "Inspirations" exhibit provides such a chance.

Organized by the City of Brea's Community Services Department, "Inspirations" is considered one of the largest "all-disabled" art shows to be held in Orange County: 100 works, including paintings, etchings, sculptures, photographs, ceramics and woodworks.

Marie Sofi, the city's gallery coordinator, contacted the artists through organizers of previous shows for the disabled and through networking organizations, such as Artabilities, a Los Angeles County-based group of disabled artists.

Most of the 25 artists chosen for the Brea exhibit, which opened Aug. 9, have had works exhibited in California and other states. A few have had showings in European festivals.

Nearly all of these artists are wheelchair-bound. Several are afflicted with muscular dystrophy. Many more are victims of polio. Others are left paralyzed as the result of occupational, sports or traffic accidents.

Although some of the artists have objected to what they term an overemphasis on the Brea event as an "all-disabled" show, most argue that this image is more than compensated by the positive reactions to the exhibit.

"Sure, we have this stigma thing--that we aren't supposed to be capable of doing anything like this," said Montebello artist Robert Thome, 31, paralyzed since suffering neck injuries in a football game in high school. "Able-bodied people see our show and they're blown away by what they see. They forget the disabled tag. They see, instead, real good art."

Anaheim artist Julie Mills, 22, who is afflicted with arthrogryposis, said of the exhibit: "A show like this one (Brea) gives you so much encouragement. It's a real breakthrough. You feel there are a lot more people out there supporting us."

The best-known participant in "Inspirations" is former star skier Jill Kinmont Boothe, whose life after becoming paralyzed in a 1955 ski-race accident was chronicled in the movie "The Other Side of the Mountain."

A teacher living in Bishop, Boothe was one of eight recipients of awards for excellence given by Soroptomist International of Brea, co-sponsor of the Brea exhibit. Other recipients were Said Abdelsayed of Santa Ana; Beverly Brody of Canoga Park; David Napravnik of Los Angeles; Don Shreves of Los Angeles; Warren Van Ess of La Mirada; Erika Visenio of Fullerton, and Thome.

"Everyone in the show is a prize winner, really," said Kathie Conrey, a Community Services Department aide. "Each of the 25 artists not only has demonstrated an exceptional creativity but also has had to overcome great physical obstacles."

Van Ess, 49, is a typical case. Struck down by polio at age 16, he seemed at first fated to spend the rest of his life in an iron lung. Eventually, however, he was able to breathe on his own.

For therapy a few years later, Van Ess started taking art lessons. By that time, able to move his neck muscles a little, he learned to draw by holding a pencil in his mouth.

Since then, Van Ess has specialized in gentle, warmly nostalgic scenes in watercolors, pen-and-ink and oils--such as his Midwestern folk landscapes in the "Inspirations" exhibit.

To Van Ess, art is a God-sent gift. "Art has always been a spiritual, inner journey for me. My world may still begin in a wheelchair, but it is free to go as far as my mind and imagination can take me."

Another example is Karen Wheeler, 30, an El Toro resident afflicted since birth with muscular dystrophy. A graduate of Santa Ana's Saddleback High School, she has earned art degrees from Santa Ana College and Cal State Fullerton. Although she, too, is bound to a wheelchair, she does have use of her hands.

Her watercolor and pen-and-ink works in the Brea show include depictions of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Another is called "Self-Portrait II," a highly personal drawing that shows an eye--representing herself--at the center of a lovely, blooming rose.

Wheeler's hopes are for a full-time career as an artist. "We don't want to be known as disabled artists. No, we don't need that kind of labeling. We want to be known, simply, as artists ."

Robert Thome, who says he's come a "long way" in the 15 years since he was left paralyzed below the neck after a football accident, feels his art career has gotten off to a good start.

"Funny though, I had always wanted to be an artist, long before the accident. Somehow, I got back into it when I was in college (Cerritos, later Rio Hondo and UC Riverside). Sure, I still had my bouts with depression along the way, but art--and God--kept bringing me back."

Holding a brush in his mouth, he can only paint within a 2-square-inch area at any one time. For this reason, he finds the pontillist method--the use of minuscule, dotlike strokes--an ideal style. In recent years, Thome has had showings throughout the country, including an exhibit at the 1981 Sister Kenny International Art Contest in Philadelphia, where he won the top pen-and-ink prize.

At Brea's "Inspirations" exhibit, Thome's pontillistic portraits--massive portraits that look like geometric mosaics--are among the most striking entries. "I'm an artist. I feel comfortable in saying that. That is my career, my life now," he said.

Thome added: "Life is too short for all of us on earth, whether you're able-bodied or disabled. It's a mere blink in the scheme of things.

"We must use our time the best we can--to the fullest, the most creative ways. It's something, maybe, we (the disabled) understand too well."

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