Art Provides Independence

Artist Karen Wheeler unveils work at Caesars for MDA

Pj Perez

It's a typical Monday night inside the Divebar on East Tropicana. Twenty-something scenesters gather around the rectangular bar. Across the room, beyond the partial wall dividing the venue, more people sit at tables around a small stage. In one corner of the smallish, smoky bar, Karen Wheeler is having the time of her life. Her favorite local band, The Underground Rebels, is ripping through its high-energy set of rock 'n' roll cover songs and originals. She bobs to the beat, grinning exuberantly.

Wheeler loves music, whether it's the fast-and-gritty rock of the Rebels or the orchestral pop of the Moody Blues, but the one thing she loves more is painting. It's her life. It's what she knows how to do, and it's something she does amazingly well. But she has a more practical reason for doing it.

"Art is the only thing I can really do on my own without asking for help," Wheeler says. "Everything else in my whole day is dependent on someone else."

Karen Wheeler is afflicted with spinal muscular atrophy, a particularly crippling form of muscular dystrophy, which has rendered Wheeler immobile and nearly paralyzed her entire life.

Yes, Wheeler has suffered her share of obstacles. In college, one of her cherished mentors, an art instructor, told Wheeler she could never get her master's degree. His argument only pushed Wheeler harder—she not only completed her graduate studies in art, but also did so with a 4.0 grade-point average.

That seems to be the pattern for Wheeler's life: prove 'em wrong. If nothing else, Wheeler's genetic condition has forced her to become extremely resourceful. After completing her studies, she invented the wrist brace she now uses, which attaches to her wheelchair via long rubber bands. This prevents her forearm from unexpectedly dropping when she is painting, yet still gives her a surprising range of motion.

She also developed her own style of watercolor painting, which she calls "layering." To accommodate her limitations, Wheeler uses a very fine brush to apply paint in deliberate, careful strokes. The result looks almost like colored-pencil work, eschewing the traditionally transparent look of the watercolor form.

Wheeler unveils her latest work, "Voices in the Sky," at the Emperors Level ballroom area at Caesars Palace on July 22, just one week after her 51st birthday. This will be the second time she has teamed with Caesars for this event, which benefits the Muscular Dystrophy Association by auctioning a one-of-a-kind framed giclée of the unveiled work. Other paintings by Wheeler will also be on display, as well as items for sale, including prints, greeting cards and dog tag necklaces.

"The event itself is kind of a birthday celebration for me because I will have lived 50 years longer than I was supposed to," says Wheeler.

The Moody Blues song of the same name inspired "Voices in the Sky." The 16- by 20-inch painting is informed somewhat by Rembrandt. In it, hundreds of faces peer from heavy clouds in the sky, faces that Wheeler loosely modeled on small, blurry Internet printouts, so that the faces "really are my own." Because of its size and her limited range of motion, she could only work on small portions of the canvas at any given time. The painting took hundreds of hours over six months to complete.

Other works by the artist are more directly tied to rock 'n' roll. A portrait of John Lennon she created in 1983, "Imagine," is in the private collection of Julian Lennon, who received it from Wheeler as a gift backstage at one of his concerts in the late 1980s.

"Music is my biggest inspiration," says Wheeler. "With titles of songs or phrases from songs, I can see a painting done in my head."

Wheeler's other favorite subjects are animals. One particularly vibrant piece, "Scent of Jasmine," is a close-up portrait of a friend's dog. It's a fine example of how Wheeler achieves near-black tones without using black paint and pure whites by leaving blank spaces. Most watercolor artists could not achieve such intricate details as the light reflected in the dog's eyes, but because of her unique technique, Wheeler comes to it naturally.

"I love animals," Wheeler says. "They are not judgmental and are very loyal. Dogs and birds don't care if I have broccoli in my teeth."

This will be the second time Wheeler has teamed with Caesars for this event, which benefits the Muscular Dystrophy Association by auctioning a one-of-a-kind framed print of the unveiled work. At last year's auction, she debuted her "Tribute to Rembrandt," a painting that took 500 hours to complete. This year's event will feature live music by the Limey Bar Stewards (which includes members of The Underground Rebels). Channel 8's Gary Waddell, a collector of Wheeler's work and an avid supporter of MDA, will host the auction.

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