Matthew Kaopio taps the tip of his paintbrush on the brim of a small saucer filled with water. Ripples of purple spread in the miniature basin and quickly dissolve, leaving a semi-opaque lavender pool resting on the edge of Kaopio’s easel. Different colors of acrylic paints and varying sizes of paintbrushes surround him and the piece holding his focus in the southeast corner of Kahuku Medical Center’s activity room: a nymph with auburn hair overlooking a pond where a unicorn is embraced by a blonde woman dressed in lime green as it bows down to drink from the water. Kaopio brings the brush to the canvas and with a quick cadence he shadows a boulder where the nymph can be seen lounging. She is perched on the stone as streams of white water fall into a dark pool below.
“I’m in the mood to paint something that is out of the ordinary,” Kaopio says. A couple feet outside of Kaopio’s workspace, dozens of his artwork, some mundane, others fantastical, lean against the wall, all waiting to be sold or gifted to friends: zebras grazing in the midst of a bright orange dust storm, an hourglass-shaped performer holds a microphone stand beside her, and a sun setting behind Mokoliʻi as waves crash onto the shore. “My dreams are very vivid—I have some incredibly creative dreams.”
The creation of the nymph’s deep blue pond is surprising when one considers how Kaopio controls his tool: his mouth. In 1994, Kaopio became paralyzed from the shoulders down, after breaking his neck diving from Waipahe‘e Falls on Kaua‘i. Floating in the water, unable to move, Kaopio thought he had lost the ability to enjoy the activities he loved: swimming, surfing, hiking, even singing and drawing. “From that moment on, I knew life was changed forever,” Kaopio says. “I was probably in a funk for the first three years, just not knowing what the future was going to hold.”
A self-portrait helped pull Kaopio out of his gloom. He signed up for an art therapy program in which painters controlled the brushes with their mouths. After much coaxing by the teacher, Kaopio painted a self-portrait that inspired compliments from the class. He said it just came out looking like him, in a “Homer Simpson” kind of way. “I painted it yellow with purple hair,” Kaopio says. “It kind of dawned on me that there are some things I can still do, even though I can’t do it the way I want to. … Seeing myself from that perspective, I became a lot more accepting of my situation.”
To create a painting, Kaopio needs help setting up his tools. The canvas is placed in front of him. The palette and water dish are set below it. He is fitted with a mouth stick. Then, he selects his brush, dips it in one of the dollops of acrylic paint on his palette, and raises it to the canvas. His painting also triggered a different way of thinking that spilled over into his everyday life.
“I decided to try to see how creative I could be to get the results I want,” he says, a realization that emboldened him. He asked strangers to help him get money from his pocket so he could pay for his groceries. He asked riders to push the button for his floor when entering an elevator. “That is when I decided to go back to school and finish my degree,” he says. In 1999, Kaopio completed a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu. Next, he obtained a master’s degree at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Center for Pacific Island Studies. After earning his degree in Pacific Island Studies, he wrote his first novel, “Written in the Sky,” which was published by Mutual Publishing in 2005, followed by “Up Among the Stars” in 2011. “Writing was like painting using words,” he says.
Back at Kaopio’s corner workstation, the artist cleans his brush in the opaque waters of the saucer. He raises the brush for the final strokes of the painting. The three streams of bright water divide into five as they fall into the pool below; the unicorn is reflected in the pond that fills the mossy landscape. Just as it does the unicorn’s oasis, moving water frames Kaopio’s journey. “If water cannot flow uphill,” he says, “it will carve another path around the mountain.”