Tommy Hollenstein - Wheelchair Artist

December 17, 2016

We all know life is a continuous flow of successes and setbacks. Sometimes we take a few steps forward. Sometimes we take a few steps back. In the end, most of us end up ahead of where we started.

But what do you do when life hands you more than a setback? What do you do when at the start of life's journey, as you plan to take the world by storm, life smacks you upside the head and puts you in a wheelchair for the rest of your life? If you're world renowned wheelchair artist Tommy Hollenstein, you find a way to keep moving forward - and make the world a better place along the way.

Life Altering Incident

Tommy Hollenstein was only 24 years old when he suffered a mountain biking accident that broke his neck and left him wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. The accident took away from the surfer, skater and extreme sports athlete many of life's pleasures. The accident also appeared to kill Hollenstein's most significant passion - to become an acclaimed artist. 

After spending six months in the hospital to rehabilitate from the life-altering incident, Hollenstein spent the early years trying to find a new path. At times the path led him to dark and dangerous places. At other times the path went nowhere.

During the rehabilitation process, therapists attempted to create a spark within Hollenstein by focusing on his passion for art; a passion which he has had since he was five years old. Without full use of his hands, therapists suggested art using a mouth stick - a technique used by other paraplegics.

"Since I was a kid I really wanted to be an artist. The spinal cord injury groups knew that and they tried to teach me how to paint, using a mouth stick. I hated it. It was just too confining for me," Hollenstein said to The Patch in 2011. Frustrated and demoralized, Hollenstein gave up on the idea of art as a pastime, much less, a career choice.

For over a decade, becoming an artist was something that Hollenstein viewed as a lost opportunity. Something that the old Tommy Hollenstein could have done. Sticking a brush in his mouth was not something that interested Hollenstein in the least.

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A Rebirth

Tommy Hollenstein's passion for art was reborn about 12 years after his accident. And the source of his revived passion came from the most unlikely source - his service dog, Weaver.

About two years after his accident, Hollenstein received from Canine Companions for Independence what would be the spark to a new life...and eventually, a new career.

Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that pairs service dogs with those in need, assigned a young, diligent and personable service dog to Hollenstein. This beautiful yellow Labrador named Weaver would in time be the source of Hollenstein's rise from medical salesperson to iconic wheelchair artist.

Right off the bat, Weaver was what Hollenstein needed. A loyal and trusted confidant with whom Hollenstein could share his most intimate thoughts - regardless of Weaver's ability to talk back. Weaver was truly Hollenstein's best friend. So close were man and dog that Weaver became Hollenstein's constant source of cheer and laughter. Something he needed so dearly during his darkest days.

"Weaver was the one who gave me back my independence and gave me the confidence to move into my own apartment. The bond between the dog and I was just phenomenal," said Hollenstein during a 2009 interview with L.A. Weekly.

Tommy Hollenstein - Wheelchair Artist

An Artist is Born

Over time Hollenstein came to realize that Weaver would not be around forever. While Hollenstein had plenty of photos of Weaver, a picture on the wall did not do justice the relationship that the two had built.

One day Hollenstein had an epiphany regarding how he could honor his best friend - a painting. This time, however, the painting would not involve a mouth stick. Instead, the painting would involve the two things his life most relied upon - his wheelchair and Weaver.

"As he started to get older, I really wanted to have something as a memory of him on my wall other than a photograph. So I kept thinking that someday I'm gonna roll through paint and have him walk through the same paint. It'll be like tire tracks and paw prints," Hollenstein said to L.A. Weekly.

Hollenstein had a close call when Weaver, who was almost 15 years old, had a stroke. Weaver survived but Hollenstein realized that time was running out. It was at that point that Hollenstein finally put to bed his apprehension about art and decided to create two pieces dedicated to Weaver.

By covering the tires of his wheelchair in paint and rolling over a canvas, creating tracks, Hollenstein gave birth to his personal form of art. Weaver then contributed by imprinting the canvas with his own paw prints. The pieces symbolized their relationship.

"He didn't like walking through the wet paint at first, but he got into it on the second canvas we did together," said Hollenstein in a 2013 interview with The Friday Flyer

Hollenstein did not envision taking the art beyond the couple pieces he created with Weaver. The project, however, awoke Hollenstein's need to paint. Thereafter, Hollenstein began a steady practice of creating wheelchair art.

Tommy Hollenstein - Wheelchair Art - Salvation Backpack

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Commitment to Excellence

"I was always using my hands, so when I broke my hands I thought art was over. It wasn't until my love for Weaver caused me to paint that I realized my hands were just an extension of what was within me. I had found another way to express art," said Hollenstein in an interview with the Inland Empire Museum of Art.

Hollenstein spends the time needed to ensure that every work delivers on his message and intent. His commitment to his craft is one reason he is a highly regarded and sought after artist.

Hollenstein spends anywhere from a day to three months on a single painting. Hollenstein begins with the assistance of an aide who places paint on the wheels of his chair according to Hollenstein's direction. Hollenstein then spins, swerves and contorts his wheelchair repeatedly on the canvas, slowly bringing his visions to life.

While some of Hollenstein's pieces may appear simplistic, most of his works are highly complex pieces of art that can be comprised of as many as 50 layers. A painting generally takes no less than a couple weeks, with many taking months as each layer of paint must dry before the next is applied.

Hollenstein's attention to details and his vision for each piece results in artwork that is both humbling and awe-inspiring. His paintings tend to be cheery and positive. Most of Hollenstein's works are bright and dazzling. Hollenstein's positivity comes through in his works. All of his paintings have inspirational names such as "Remember," "Salvation" and "Soar."

"I want them to look at the painting without even knowing it was a disabled painter painting that," Hollenstein said in an interview with CCTV America. "When I'm painting and I'm in the studio, I don't even think about [that] I'm in a wheelchair."

"God speaks to me. I feel free when I'm painting in my chair. I feel no restrictions. It's like dancing. It's probably the time I feel most freedom in my chair," Hollenstein said to The Friday Flyer.

Going Pro

Soonafter Hollenstein begin painting he decided to test the art market waters by reaching out to local galleries. Hollenstein achieved immediate positive feedback.

Hollenstein's first gallery show took place in 2005. During that show he sold nine pieces of art. 

"I had always gone to galleries and began to self-promote," Hollenstein said to The Patch. "I sold nine paintings at my first solo show with prices of $1,600 to $4,800. Actor Joaquin Phoenix walked out with two paintings that night."

Over the years Hollenstein's work has been purchased by both celebrities and every day people. Notable celebrities that have purchased a Hollenstein piece include rocker Slash, musician Nick Hexum of the group 311and writer Dean Koontz.

Hollenstein has also collaborated with celebrities such as Ringo Starr and Joe Walsh, who donated their handprints to create a painting called Helping Hands, for the purpose of raising funds for Shane's Inspiration, a nonprofit devoted to creating playgrounds accessible to children with disabilities. 

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Goodwill Ambassador

Hollenstein did not start life intending to be an inspiration or a role model. Life dealt him a difficult hand. After some adjusting, Hollenstein decided to make the most of the opportunities life presented to him. Rather than retreat, Hollenstein chose to embrace life and show the world that being disabled does not mean the end of the world.

"Tommy is an incredible living example of finding grace and gratitude in all things," GettLove.org founder Aileen Getty told The Patch. "His victory over obstacles to maintain his creative efforts and caring for others inspires me."

Peter Mays, the executive director of the Los Angeles Art Association said to The Patch, "Tommy represents an uncommon level of commitment and achievement that is amazing and inspiring." 

Today, Hollenstein conducts charity art projects with and for children as he spreads his message of being strong and overcoming. He volunteers time and helps raise money for worthwhile organizations.

Hollenstein no longer sells medical supplies. He is a full-time professional painter with a worldwide following. Hollenstein credits his career as an artist to his dedicated service dog, Weaver, who inspired him to attempt a new form of art. Hollenstein sends 10 percent of every sale to Canine Companions for Independence as a tribute to his late companion.

Sometimes when life smacks you upside the head and tries to take everything away you have to ask life, "Is that all you have?" Tommy Hollenstein was dealt a serious blow. But with the help of Weaver and some determination, Hollenstein managed to not only survive but thrive.