Creating art is something I can do without anyone’s help. In fact, it’s one of the very few things I can do by myself. What’s important to me is the ability to control at least one thing in my life because of my severe limitations. Everything I do takes immense energy and endurance. Luckily for me, I am very stubborn, and my tenacity keeps me from giving up anything I feel is important.

A painting by Karen Wheeler

I have spinal muscular atrophy 1 (SMA 1) and have long outlived my life expectancy. SMA 1 is manifested at birth, and a child with this form of muscular dystrophy usually doesn’t reach age two. I will turn 62 this year.

Since I couldn’t play with other kids easily, my mom would sit me outside with a pencil and paper. I must’ve already been a pretty good artist at four years old, because I drew a fly that was bugging me (no pun intended) and my mom could tell exactly what it was.

I used oils until I graduated from high school and then switched to watercolor. They didn’t smell, and they were much easier to work with even though I had to create my own method of application. Physically I wasn’t able to paint watercolor in the traditional manner, like wet-on-wet and large transparent layers. Instead I perfected a dry brush technique where I could cover large areas by using thousands of tiny brush strokes. It took me hours to complete a piece, but I’m happy to say I don’t know of any other artwork like mine.

Another painting by Karen Wheeler

I decided to attend junior college. Majoring in art was a given until I started school. I had so much trouble with an art teacher convinced that I couldn’t paint if I couldn’t physically stretch my own canvases. I was extremely disappointed after taking so many prerequisites only to be told I couldn’t take painting. What else would I do for possible employment? My dream was shattered.

When I transferred to the university, I changed my major to psychology. That didn’t last very long because I changed it back to art the next semester. I knew in my heart I had to pursue something where I could be creative and express myself. Even if I didn’t make it big in the art world, I could at least teach.

A friend of mine designed a tiny sleeve out of neoprene that slips over my finger and over the brush handle. I can paint by merely moving my finger. The results are the same as my usual work, and I can paint a little faster than I used to. As you move through life, remember there are ways to do everything you need to do to have a peaceful and productive existence.

Karen Wheeler painting

Attending California State University, Fullerton was probably the best part of my life, and I would recommend this to everyone. The college environment was full of people who were either very educated or they wanted to be. I was treated like a regular person there. This feeling was even more noticeable when I was out in public and people would literally run into something while they were walking and straining to stare at me. College was the one place where I felt like I belonged.

After I received my Master’s degree in 1981 I decided to do some part-time jobs on campus while I looked for art options. I worked in the Disabled Student Center reading tests for visually impaired students, illustrating a newsletter and writing some of the articles in it, running errands on campus and setting up appointments for student counselors. I even volunteered at several galleries. For someone with so many limitations, I handled lots of jobs and did them well.

Since being out of the college scene I have immersed myself in the art community, especially when I moved to Las Vegas in 1991. I’ve participated in hundreds of art shows, was the director of a major art group in southern Nevada and I started the Spirit of Art group with some fellow artists. Our goal is to keep art alive in the community, and every exhibit I curate for us includes some kind of benefit for a local charity.

As I age, my disability continues to decline and rob me of many abilities — but I will always find a way to paint. Art truly is in the mind, and fixing the physical part is easy.


Karen Wheeler

Karen Wheeler has Spinal Muscular Atrophy 1 and has been drawing since the age of four. She is currently the only surviving professional artist in Southern Nevada with a neuromuscular disease.

Most of her work is in watercolor and in 1981 Karen received a master’s degree in art from California State University, Fullerton where she made watercolor her primary choice of medium. Her emphasis in graduate school was Illustration and she maintained a 4.0 grade point average.

Karen hides or places a rose in every painting completed after 1986 because it represents her in her work. Each painting takes Karen approximately 150 to 500 hours to complete. She now resides in Henderson, Nevada and currently has greeting cards on display throughout the West Coast.

Karen is involved with her group Spirit of Art and she enjoys arts and crafts, concerts, movie, animals of all kinds, art shows, and teaching.

Artist expresses patience in coping with disability

Review JournalHer work reflects not only her hard-won skill with watercolor, but her great patience, a certain tender tenacity and ability to focus on fine details.

As day melts into night, Wheeler keeps working, often until the predawn hours.

“My art is an expression of independence and freedom,” she says. “Because anything I can’t do physically, I can do it in art.”

Her watercolor of musician Todd Kerns will appear in the jewel box of his new CD. It’s set to debut June 2. Partial proceeds of the CD go to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. (Although she’s redesigning her website, you can find more of her art and thoughts at,, and Artist Karen Wheeler on Facebook.)

Picasso was known to produce several paintings in a single day. Wheeler once spent 11 months on a single watercolor. She slaved over every stroke.

“And it doesn’t look very big,” she says, laughing for the first of several times during our interview. “It’s more what’s involved. It’s pretty tedious.”

Her hands unable to control larger brushes and bolder strokes, she concentrates on single elements and colors, combining them in layers and fitting them together almost like jigsaw puzzle pieces. It’s a technique born of necessity.

Holding a pen, for instance, is unwieldy and uncomfortable. She no longer sketches pen-and-ink drawings. But she hasn’t let it prevent her from creating art.

“My dexterity has gotten worse, and it gets worse all the time,” she says. “But I can still feed myself. I can still paint.”

Rather than lamenting her body’s deficits, she takes what remains and somehow makes it work.

It’s been that way from the start.

As a baby, she didn’t sit up like other youngsters. Instead of crawling in the usual way, she sort of scooted and rolled. A doctor diagnosed her with muscular dystrophy and told her parents she might last a few more months.

They buried that doctor years ago. Karen Wheeler turns 58 in July.

“He told my parents my life expectancy was one year,” she says, laughing again. “Actually, I outlived him.”

Because she couldn’t go out and play like other kids, her mother kept her busy with pencil and paper. She began to sketch what she saw.

A Southern California native, she grew up in a generation when kids with disabilities were a segregated minority. The physically, behaviorally and mentally challenged were lumped together in classrooms with few educational expectations. She eventually spent half days at Saddleback High, where she again had to lobby for access to classes that ambulatory teenagers took for granted. She managed to push her way into mainstream courses, and excelled. She even passed a driver’s education class although she admits, “I’ve never driven, just my chair.”

After high school, she earned bachelor and master of arts degrees from California State University, Fullerton. Not that anyone expected her to get that far.

“I had a teacher there tell me he was pretty sure I could get a B.A., but that I couldn’t get an M.A.,” she recalls. “That’s when I knew I was going to get it. I’m stubborn that way. … I’ve always had, I guess, a stubborn streak. If someone said I couldn’t do something, I’d find another way to do it, work around them, always persevere, go forward, even if I have to go diagonally first.”

And she never quits. Wheeler’s friend Lynn McMullan is awed by the woman’s courage. McMullan observes, “She smiles through it all. I know everyday stuff is unimaginably tough for her. Her art is a gift that she was blessed with, but to do what she does with the cards she has been dealt is miraculous. She is a beautiful soul. I think she makes us all better for being around her.”

Rushing from place to place is out of the question. Like her work, her day is lived meticulously. She seems almost nymph-like in her battery-powered wheelchair. She moves its joystick with her thumb and positions herself in front of a watercolor-in-progress.

Then she takes the most from the least and manages to create beauty from pigment and water.

Although those who know her story think she’s amazing, it’s just another day in Karen Wheeler’s life.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.


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