One day, artist Dan Keplinger decided he would take a trip to Trader Joe’s to buy his wife orchids, her favorite flower.
“It took him four hours to get himself to the store to get that flower for me and bring it home,” Dena Keplinger said of her husband. “He would go to such depths to do that for me.”
Dan Keplinger, a Baltimore native, is living with cerebral palsy. He contracted CP at birth after having been pronounced stillborn. His wife jokes that with a little bit of the nurses’ TLC, he was able to come back to life.
Though he was born with the condition, which makes everyday tasks like brushing teeth and eating difficult, he has the spirit of a fighter. This became the inspiration for his nickname and the name of his documentary, “King Gimp.”
Keplinger relied on his wife to help him communicate due to the effects of CP on his speech.
“My brother and I lived in a house at the top of the hill, and I would always be home,”
Keplinger said, assisted by his wife. “Everybody in the neighborhood would come and ask where [my brother] was, and since I knew it all, they called me King, and then Gimp, because of my disability.”
The name stuck, but for Keplinger, the term “gimp” takes on another meaning entirely.
“I looked up the word gimp and I found out it also means fighting spirit,” he said. “I am the king of the fighting spirit and not many people think [gimp] also means that.”
Keplinger said he does not allow cerebral palsy to stop him from doing what he loves: creating art.
The focus of his documentary is to illustrate Keplinger’s life from age 12 to 25 and show how he began taking an interest in art and using it to help release his emotions and creativity.
On a visit to the Tyler School of Art on Oct. 2, Keplinger shared his unique creation process with students in Professor Lisa Kay’s art education class.
“It was an amazing thing to be a part of and see how [Keplinger] actually makes his art,” Brianna Collins, a photography student with a focus in art education, said. “As someone who is going to be a teacher, [I am] going to have students with disabilities, and it’s amazing to see someone doing great things with their lives and not letting anything get in the way.”
From the moment Keplinger moved onto the floor to work on his piece, he seemed fully immersed in the art and broke concentration only to answer questions from students.
In order to paint or draw, he typically wears a “headstick,” a tool that allows him more independence in his work. However, during the presentation in Kay’s class, he worked with pastels and preferred to use his hands as his tools.
The immense amount of energy Keplinger uses in each piece of art is something Kay said she finds particularly incredible.
“As I watched him move around that paper, all I thought in my head was this choreographed dance between him and the paper and the materials,” Kay said. “He was just so engaged in the process, it was like this dialogue between him and the image. That was amazing.”
Keplinger puts all he has into each piece, making his work all the more personal and profound.
“Art is about pushing yourself to the next step,” Keplinger said. “Most people may question how art and disability go together, but to me it makes sense. They are both a way of living, because you always have to figure out answers.”
While taking turns to guess what the drawing might be of, students were able to witness how Keplinger uses his art to project his feelings to others.
“Every piece of art has a part of me, because you can see every mark I make, intentional and unintentional,” Keplinger said.
It typically takes him two to three weeks to complete one of his pieces, which have appeared in galleries across the country.
While Keplinger has achieved success with his work, he said that without the help of the caring people around him, he would not be where he is. The relationship between him and his wife is of particular importance.
“He takes greater care of me than I do of him,” Dena Keplinger said.
At the Keplingers’ speaking engagement at Tyler Contemporary on Oct. 3, Dena mentioned that without her husband’s disability, the two may never have come to be.
“I was working as a nanny when I caught his documentary on HBO, and my life was so changed I had to contact him,” she said. “We were friends for three years until I accompanied him on a trip to California, and by the end I knew I was smitten.”
The strong connection the Keplingers have did not go unnoticed by students, who said the way the couple communicated was a beautiful thing to witness.
“I really enjoyed seeing Dan and Dena talk to each other because it really seems like they developed their own language with each other,” Tia Tumminello, a senior art education major, said. “It seems like the rest of the world isn’t an issue for them, and it looks like they can get through anything. They’ve built something really strong with each other.”
The couple shares a similar outlook on life, which they said they wish to spread to others. Keplinger said he hopes people pick up on this message through his art.
“I just enjoy life and take it as it comes and see it as an adventure,” he said. “Everybody has obstacles that it’s so easy to blow everything out of proportion.”
Having the ability to use art as an outlet has changed Keplinger’s life tremendously, he said. Recognizing a need for more people to find a niche, he said he hopes everyone, disabled or not, will eventually find some thing they love.
“I’d like to think that if everyone found a passion in life, then it would be a better world,” Keplinger said. “I see that everyone has something to contribute to society. I’m not saying you have to solve the biggest problem. Something as simple as opening a door for someone having a bad day can change someone’s entire attitude.”
Alexa Bricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.