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Water Colors & Mouth Stick Painting
Cindi Bernhardt & Dennis Francesconi
"My disability has forced me to discover a gift from God I didn't know I had. I used to express myself through dance; losing that can make you feel dead, but now I have another creative outlet—my painting."
— Cindi Bernhardt
One of the most inspiring people I've ever spoken to, disabled or not, is Cindi Bernhardt. At the tender age of 18, just after starting college, she had a tumbling accident that caused quadriplegia. The accident curtailed her career in dance and gymnastics, not to mention losing most of her ability to move. Even so, Cindi has always continued to thrive, creating new ways to express her spiritedness, and that has led her to her gift.
After learning in rehab to hold a pen in her mouth to sign her name, Cindi went on to discover art in all medias: pastels, acrylics, even oils. Currently, her favorite is watercolor painting.
Cindi uses a paintbrush with an extender—soft plastic tubing, such as dental tubing, to extend her reach and protect her mouth. Through years of practice Cindi has developed a strong jaw so she can work for a couple of hours at a time. She moves her head to paint the longer strokes of a background or sky, and uses her teeth to manipulate the brush for all other detail. Cindi uses an assistive device, a mouth-stick, to answer the phone, use her computer, turn pages, and position her canvas.
In 1991, Cindi (a California girl!) became a member of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Association (MFPA), with members in the United States and around the world. Cindi is commissioned to paint beautiful watercolor paintings and she earns a living from her art. Her paintings now hang in private collections throughout the United States, Sweden and Russia. Be sure to visit Cindi's website to see some of her other work.
Among Cindi's many accomplishments, she sold a painting to the late commissioner of the Olympics Committee, and Cindi participated in the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Torch Relay. Cindi also had one of her paintings—a poignant, weeping, American eagle used as a tribute to the victims and rescue workers of 911 by MFPA. A print of the eagle went into 730,000 issues of the New York Times newspaper!
Cindi continues to study painting in art classes and she also keeps busy doing motivational speaking at schools, churches, and other venues. (Who is better qualified?!) As payment for these engagements, Cindi only asks for lunch and gas money, because she wants to give back to the community that anchored her during her recovery. And the community continues to stand by Cindi, raising the money over a two-year period, to purchase an accessible van.
Art will not be the only gift Cindi shares with the world; it's clear she has many more gifts within her that will continue to emerge and inspire.
"Only after you've helped others in similar situations, do you truly begin
to understand why all of this has happened in the first place."
Dennis Francesconi is an amazing artist from California. Dennis had suffered a water-skiing accident in 1980 at age 17 that caused him to be a C-5 quadriplegic. After learning to sign his name by holding a pen in his mouth, Dennis learned to sketch and paint this way and went on to achieve great things! His diverse subjects range from the California Missions to flowers, landscapes, seascapes, Christmas designs, and Victorian homes. Dennis has also experimented with work of a more surreal and abstract nature. You can see many of his paintings on his website.
Through hard work, determination, and the support of his wife Kristi, Dennis is enjoying a successful career as a professional artist. Following rehabilitation, Kristi encouraged Dennis to attend college with her and the two earned Associate of Arts Degrees, membership into Phi Theta Kappa, and inclusion on the National Dean's List. Despite the demands of college, Dennis kept sketching, and rapidly advanced to working with watercolors.
In early 1993, Dennis heard about the prestigious Mouth and Foot Painting Artists association, and quickly submitted samples of his work for review. By late 1993, Dennis was accepted as a student member. Five and a half years later, Dennis climbed the ranks to a full membership position within the MFPA.
As a full member, Dennis is paid a generous salary that allows him to be financially independent and completely self-supporting. Not being dependent on government aid is a major accomplishment close to the hearts of many people with severe disabilities. "I'm proud of the fact that through my work and the unique business model of the MFPA, I'm no longer a burden to the American taxpayer, not even for healthcare," says Dennis, who is a taxpayer himself.
Dennis has exhibited his work in Los Angeles San Diego, New York, Chicago, and Atlanta, as well as in Vancouver BC, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, China, Great Britain, Australia, and Portugal.