University of Maryland
Dan Keplinger in his studio, wearing the rig used to craft his acclaimed artworks.
Dan Keplinger was born with severe cerebral palsy. But at 30, he's already a successful artist, the subject of an Oscar-winning film called King Gimp, and he's finishing his second college degree. NPR's Neda Ulaby visited Keplinger at his home near Baltimore, Md., and reports that the artist continues to gain critical acclaim — and continues to challenge the limits his disability puts on his own body.
"Dan Keplinger lives completely independently in his messy bachelor pad," Ulaby says. "It could belong to any art student, except for a few things.... Next to the computer keyboard is a head harness with a stick attached. Keplinger uses it to peck out emails."
Keplinger says he's constantly e-mailing colleagues, fans and friends — such as Susan Hadary, who co-directed King Gimp, the Oscar-winning documentary about Keplinger's life.
Keplinger insists on doing everything for himself. To paint, Keplinger wiggles into headgear similar to what he uses to type, then kneels over a canvas, hugging himself tightly to keep his arms from flailing.
Pecking out his message, he defines his art: "I... am... an... expressionist," he writes.
Many of Keplinger's works are self-portraits or reference his disability. The subject matter is compelling, but the work might not get so much attention if Keplinger wasn't disabled, says Stewart Stein, director of the graduate program in art at Towson University.
"Maybe it's realistic to say probably not," Stein says. "But the more important question is whether he's deserving or not." And Stein, one of Keplinger's main boosters at the college, says Keplinger is indeed worthy:
"Dan's clearly one of those few people that... really is an inspiration. The paintings are in a sense a metaphor — they're triumphs, every one of them."
Hadary and producing partner Bill Whiteford followed Keplinger for 11 years, beginning when he was 12 years old. King Gimp charts Keplinger's experience in a regular public school, his discovery of art and his entry into college. The 40-minute film won an Oscar in 1999 for best short subject documentary.
His art continues to garner fans and critical acclaim. "Many of Keplinger's paintings are in some way autobiographical," Ulaby says. "His bearded face flickers from the canvas, the eyes empty hollows. He looks both vulnerable and blank. It isn't easy to separate Keplinger's story from his art."
Keplinger explains it simply: "Art... is... my... life."