Dipping a brush delicately into a container of black ink is an easy task for most artists.
Not for Brett Colonell.
“Pretty much from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep every aspect of living has some degree of a challenge,” he said. “It’s an inescapable fact that you just have to accept and work with.”
With tiny gestures, he begins to paint. Slowly. One line at a time. He cannot use his hands. He can only use his mouth.
Colonell fractured the fifth vertebrae in his neck when he crashed his dirt bike after his sophomore year at the University of Colorado. It damaged the mechanical engineering major’s spinal cord and left him permanently paralyzed from the neck down.
After recovery and his release from rehab at Craig Hospital, Colonell returned to school as a part-time student and eventually finished what he started. He got his degree. When it came time to attend career fairs and apply for jobs, he soon realized it would be difficult to succeed unless the perfect job came along.
He was capable of doing the work, but because of his limitations, he knew could only work part-time, had to limit his travel, required constant assistance and he needed to work in a controlled environment.
It could be done, but the perfect job did not come along. Fortunately, his efforts were far from wasted.
“I set a goal, asked what it is I can do and found a way to do it,” Colonell said.
Colonell said he liked drawing when he was young and it was one of the things he could still do, so he decided to dip his brush back into the ink and work to become an artist.
“To me I've always felt that the lines are pretty blurred between an engineer and an artist,” he said. “You could say that the mediums are different but the fundamental process of problem-solving, creating, and using your imagination are what make a good engineer an artist and vice versa.”
Shapes, sizes and designs took on new meanings for Brett. He became more artsy than analytical. Design flaws merely added to his creativity. Function gave way to aesthetics. Logic was balanced with emotion. Equations were broken.
Colonell realized there was no one formula to becoming an artist. And yet, he was still an engineer. In fact, Brett did not like the mouth stick he was given to paint with, so he designed a new one with a hard plastic block for brushes, markers and other instruments to lock into.
The block holds the instruments at an angle to improve his depth perception, so now he can actually see them as they touch the paper. There’s only one like it. It’s a prototype, so it’s held together with Scotch Tape -- typical of an engineer who enjoys a challenge.
“I'm creating something from nothing and that’s one challenge I look forward to every day,” he said.
Colonell works at home. His bedroom is part-art studio. He can play his music without bothering anyone, the temperature is perfect, everything has been adapted and accessible and he can focus on his new goal.
“I want someone to be able to have somebody look at my art and be able to appreciate it as much as they appreciate anybody else’s art without even knowing that it was created by somebody who is paralyzed from the neck down,” Colonell said.
Once again, the engineer dips his brush into the black ink. He is one stroke closer to becoming the artist he wants to be.
If you want to see more of Brett’s artwork on line you can go to www.brettcolonell.com.