Paul Smith - Overcoming Disability with a Typewriter
This article is part of a series titled 'The Surprisingly Revolutionary Medium of Typewriter Art'. Make sure to check out our other articles in this series linked below!
After adopting an old typewriter abandoned by a neighbour, artist Paul Smith was able to develop an artistic method adapted to his needs as a disabled artist with Cerebral Palsy, using a single finger to create over 400 pieces of art in his lifetime.
Paul Smith’s self-portrait
Paul Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1921 with severe spastic cerebral palsy. His condition affected his speech, mobility, and fine motor coordination, rendering many everyday tasks impossible without assistance. His condition meant Smith wasn’t allowed to attend school and he would never learn to read. In fact, during Smith’s early life, medical professionals were still advocating to institutionalise children with cerebral palsy.
However at 11 years of age, 5 years before Smith would learn to speak and 21 years before he would be able to walk, Smith discovered his neighbour’s abandoned typewriter and used it to memorialise the world around him. Now residing in Hollywood, Florida, Smith made the trains and tracks that ran near his home, as well as the cruise ship on which he and his family vacationed, the subject of his art.
One of Paul Smith’s many train artworks.
Smith mostly used the symbol keys on his typewriter, and pressing his thumb on the typewriter ribbon for shading, Smith created still-lifes, animal portraits, nature scenes, outdoor vistas, cityscapes and more. He often depicted notable figures in history, politics, entertainment and religion. Smith would also replicate great historical works of art such as da Vinci's ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper,’ Rodin's ‘The Thinker,’ and Leutze's ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware.’ To ensure that he didn’t mistakenly type other characters, Smith would secure the shift key in a locked position, whilst using his left hand to keep his right hand steady. He would also take care to adjust the spacing of letters using the roller, and developed a scaling system to help him reproduce photographs.
Smith’s Last Supper replication
These varied typewriter artworks show how Smith was not only able to express himself despite his disabilty, but was also able to explore deepen his understanding of the world around him.
Smith’s art evolved with technological advancements, such as the introduction of colour typewriter ribbons. As describes it, the use of colour coupled with Smith’s other techniques meant his work ‘took on less of a pen-and-ink look and more of a pastel and charcoal appearance’.
Zoomed in photo of an early coloured artwork of Smith's
Portrait of Mabry Mill, Virginia
Paul Smith passed away on the 25th June 2007 at 85-years-old in Rose Haven Nursing Home in Roseburg, Oregon, where he had resided since 1967 following his parents’ deaths. Many of his works adorned the Rose Haven’s walls. Smith’s work can be found in various places online and has been featured by a handful of American news stations. He has inspired other typewriter artists, most notably UK artist James Cook, as well as other artists with disabilities.
Paul Smith himself
The new opportunities afforded to disabled artists through computer and software technologies mirror how the typewriter proved of great benefit to Paul Smith, helping him express himself when there was no other way. It is truly incredible what Paul Smith was able to overcome and this is reflected by his astoundingly beautiful artwork.
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If you want to learn more about Paul Smith:
There are also many videos on Paul and his work to be found on Youtube, including this upload from an NBC piece on Paul.
If you would like the chance to give typewriter art a go yourself, we have typewriters available to use in our store. Don't hesitate to contact us on social media (@typesetspace) or through email (email@example.com) to try one. Alternatively, pop in-store any time we're open and give it a go!