In the year 1921, when people with cerebral palsy hardly received any support and or care from their communities, Paul Smith was born. Paul died at the age of 85 and lived a full life, creating beautiful pictures with what most artists would call an unconventional piece of machinery, in the field of art. This unconventional piece of machinery and Paul’s tool of choice was the manual typewriter.
Smith was otherwise known as the “Typewriter Artist” and his story of creative artistry spans across eight decades. Seven of the eight decades he lived in, Paul created art using a typewriter.
Life began with limited opportunities, as Paul was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy that affected his speech, mobility and ultimately put huge limitations on what he was able to pursue in life.
At the time, the government did not deem a person with Paul’s condition to be entitled to a mainstream education. He wasn’t taught to read or write and children with his form a cerebral palsy were often institutionalised. Medical care, during Smith’s childhood years, was nowhere near as progressive as it is today.
Born on the 21st of September, 1921 in Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia, doctors did not give him a long life expectancy. With the odds stacked against him from the moment he breathed fresh air, Smith began to defy his expected early fate and live on to a ripe old age of 85.
Although his determined efforts to pursue some of the things many of us take for granted in life, many people show their admiration for his creativity as an artist. Paul was able to create thought provoking masterpieces, that many have wondered exactly how they were created and this is rightly so, because Paul’s tool of choice for creating these wonderful pictures was none other than the common typewriter.
At the age of 11, Paul began to create pictures with a typewriter that had been discarded by his neighbor. The typewriter would become a way in which Paul could express his creativity in a non-verbal manner. Creating art with a typewriter allowed Paul to convey feelings and emotions that he would otherwise have not been able to communicate as easily, because of his condition. Paul found that the typewriter was the perfect tool, as he was not able to grip pens, pencils and brushes, with ease.
Instantly recognisable, Paul’s artwork featured animals, still faces, nature, scenes of war, spiritual symbols and outdoor scenes.
Setting aside how remarkable it was for Paul to be able to use something like a typewriter, it was in fact the painstaking skill that he put into his creations. What’s more is, Paul only used a handful of symbols which were !, @, #, %, ^, _, ( and &. Each of these symbols was accessible from the top row of the typewriter keyboard. These symbols were placed on the paper with the greatest of precision and it is important to recognise that typewriters of this era left no room for errors.
When colour typewriters were invented, Paul began to layer his pictures with colour. A clever technique that he used was to press his thumb on the ribbon to create shaded areas on the pictures.
Smith worked on average roughly 2 hours a day. Depending on the complexity of the work he was producing, it could take anywhere between two weeks and 3 months.
Creating art was something that Paul pursued as a leisurely activity. He didn’t believe he had the talent of a true artist, but we know that this is not true. The work that Paul Smith produced has set the bar high for future typewriter artists.