A lot of the talk surrounding the California Roots Festival is around the bands that make up the incredible line-up, and spans three long desert-filled days. There is not much talk about the artists that will be displaying their paintings for the thousands of concertgoers, such as mouth-painter, Kirk O’Hara.
For the past three years, Artist Kirk O’Hara, has been presenting his pieces and painting live in front of festival attendees.
Artist Kirk O’Hara is an outgoing native of Mesa, Arizona who has a passion and strong talent for painting. His works are vibrant and colorful and his shading only causes his subjects to burst from his chosen surface including canvas and skateboards. The immaculate detail of the scenes and figures he creates are inspired by his reggae and punk rock influence. What sets Kirk O’Hara apart, is all of his paintings are done with the brush in his mouth.
Kirk O’Hara was born with arthrogryposis, an abnormal fibrosis of muscle tissue that causes muscle shortening due to joint contractures. One might think that Kirk overcame adversity to become a talented painter, which would be an accurate assumption. After speaking with Kirk it became apparent that this man was born with a unique gift that the rest of us could only wish to possess. With the flick of his head or neck, O’Hara tells an amazing story with his paintbrush, between his teeth.
Growing up with four brothers will test any mans wits and sense of humor while testing a mother’s patience. “I was naturally adventurous” proclaims O’Hara, telling me stories about growing up with his brothers, in the desert, riding around strapped to the back of an ATV with an army belt and shooting each other with BB guns and PVC rockets. But you’ll notice that in the painting of the owl he did when he was five years old, his skills were apparent at a very young age.
He described, with incredible fondness, a road trip up the California coast on through Seattle when his chair started acting up. His friends passed through North Dakota and visited an insane asylum before his wheelchair broke in Utah, where they discovered an abandoned train. With plans to move into the train while his chair was fixed, he told of how Robert Redford swooped in to refurbish the railway that ended up running around the mountain within a month.
Frustration surrounding his condition naturally led to angst and a need for something more in his life. He turned to art as an outlet telling of how the wheelchair “hasn’t really got in my way. As far as anything I could do, I did.”
He took lessons from a local woman cultured in Arizona Native American art. “Art saved my life,” he says while describing the spiritual journey that began to take hold. At 15 years old, O’Hara entered his work into his first art exhibit only three years after he began private lessons. A year later, he completed a twelve-painting series and sold every piece in just a few hours into the show. “I am grateful that I can use this medium to be honest and reflect my feelings on the canvas,” says O’Hara, “I’ve found my voice in painting and strive to send a message that everyone can understand.”
O’Hara’s love for art moved him closer to music, specifically reggae and punk rock. Inspired by groups such as NOFX, Black Flag, and Social Unrest, O’Hara related to the do-it-yourself mentality of the genre. While attending punk rock shows, a local promoter would blast reggae music in between sets, drawing O’Hara closer to bands like the Abyssinians, Groundation, The Simpkin Project, and John Brown’s Body. The spirituality he expressed in each piece naturally drew him to reggae because it was still, what Kirk feels as, “rebel music and expressed so much love.”
Now a full time artist and member of the Southwest Art Association, O’Hara’s customers and collectors are as diverse as his paintings. With a Southwestern style inspired by bands such as the Misfits and Metallica, his energy and passion are geared to the reggae/rock and surf/skate culture. Kyle McDonald of Slightly Stoopid purchased one of his skateboards and his posters have gone to David Hinds from Steel Pulse. His skateboard work can be found in Oregon, San Francisco and a few local Phoenix shops.
“I wonder if people ride them,” wonders Kirk, “they are nice seven ply decks” made with supreme quality. If they look too beautiful to ride, O’Hara’s wife, Sharon, has a response, “that’s why you gotta buy two.”
I asked Kirk if his teeth ever hurt from painting with his mouth for three to six hours a day. He said his teeth have been ground down, but luckily, his step dad is a dentist. “I got a grill,” he proudly confessed. His parents were somewhat conservative and he was only able to get steel and had to dream of having gold teeth.
Kirk O’Hara will be a featured artist at this year’s Summer Meltdown at the Santa Clarita Skate Park on April 26, 2014. The Autism Awareness Art & Music Festival features acoustic sets by Matisyahu, The Dirty Heads, Stick Figure, THRIVE, and Seedless, with whom Kirk has performed live on stage with. He is hoping to get the opportunity to paint live on stage with Damian “JR Gong” Marley at this year’s fifth annual California Roots Music and Arts Festival.
O’Hara loves painting in front of people because it allows him to focus while knowing he is being judged by multiple sets of eyes. “I didn’t used to be okay with it,” thinking that his condition caused him undo attention or an unneeded cause for inspiration. He told me of a story when he was young and rebellious with a tall flat top, with one shaved eyebrow while an older lady stared at him from her nice car and then got into a fender bender. “It was pretty funny,” O’Hara chuckled.
When asked which painters have inspired him, knowing I was fishing for an obvious response, Kirk answered with, “that’s like asking a musician what his favorite note is.”
Overcoming the obstacles in his life, O’Hara strives to help others. He has participated in fundraising events for missing and lost children, Amnesty International, shelters for abused women and animal rescues. He is an extremely sought after speaker for schools and churches and a mentor for recovering alcoholics.
O’Hara’s life and work speak on a multiplicity of levels. He is an inspiration to anyone who feels success, talent, and positivity are unattainable. An incredibly unique and vibrant spark of life exudes from his work. Although he has lived in the desert for years, his love for swimming in the ocean has sparked an interest to move his work to an island paradise like Hawai’i. Be sure to check out Kirk O’Hara at this May’s California Roots Festival in Monterey, CA and let us know what his work says to you.
Watch: Kirk O’hara