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California Artist Draws on both Latino Culture and Disability as Muses


by Robin Savinar, World Institute on Disability, Oakland, CA

photo of Thome with his life-size sculpture of an angel covered in mosaic of red glass and mirror
Artist Robert Thome (background) with "Angel," his sculpture covered in 30,000-piece mosaic of broken glass and mirrors

photo of painting of woman's face
Against the Red Wall

In 1969, Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center was home to Robert Thome for more than a year following a high school football accident. Robert says he received top-notch care at the facility.

While many rehabilitation providers across the country are just now receiving training on how to provide cultural competent services, it seems the staff at Rancho Los Amigos was ahead of their time. Robert recalls a diverse group of individuals in the rehabilitation program with him. "There was a young man from Mexico who came to California for treatment, some African-American men, and a German and a Jewish kid." He continued, "Our doctor had a disability, and the Center had a Spanish translator on hand to assist the Mexican man."

But Robert knows he was lucky. "Not all hospitals are as good as Rancho. Many people leave rehab not knowing their choices and benefits. This leads to isolation of disabled people...and lots of others get steered into nursing homes; but not at Rancho. They were really good, especially with the social aspect of rehabilitation," Robert stated.

Robert attributes the quality care to having greater monetary resources then than now. As a young Chicano, Robert spoke English fluently, which likely helped.

Before his accident, Robert was passionate about sports and art - mostly pencil and marker drawing. Afterward, he figured he would not be able to continue with either of his passions. "When you're a quad you're just inside, you got to learn to deal with it," said Robert.

So he dealt with it by moving out of his family home. Robert said he left because tension was mounting. "Disability happens to the whole family, not just the individual. I left home because they couldn't deal with it anymore."

Rediscovering His Passion

Looking back to one of two passions he'd had as long as he could remember, Robert enrolled at the University of California at Riverside (UCR) to take art. According to Robert, "I didn't feel insecure about doing art, and the staff at UCR was really open to my participation in the classes." Robert applied for and received Supplemental Security Income from Social Security. Vocational Rehabilitation paid for his college education, and his dormitory was accessible.

Robert would go back to the studio after class to paint so he could have all the time he needed to work. At first, it took Robert two years to paint a "decent portrait."

But when school ended and the doors of opportunity didn't open as quickly as they did for other students, Robert got angry. He felt he was cheated, that he got a raw deal in life. At the insistence of his mother, Robert put a portfolio of work together to submit to Association of Mouth & Foot Painting Artists. But his portfolio was angry, reflecting his mood at the time. Robert moved back in with his mother and started reading the Bible heavily.

All throughout he kept doing art because he felt he was meant to do it and he was good at it. In 1984, seven years after he submitted his first portfolio, he sent another. This time Robert was accepted to join the Association for a three-year contract period. This put more wind in Robert's sails as he was proud of his skills. "They found value in me, found value in my imagery," said Robert of the Association. Today, as a life member, Robert mentors young Latino men with spinal cord injuries at Rancho. He encourages those who have an interest in art to approach the Association. "I make a good living as an artist. So can these adolescents. They are young, so I steer them toward the Association for guidance and artistic nurturing," Robert beamed.

Looking to His Cultures for Inspiration

Today Robert includes Latino and disability themes in his work because he thinks they are important. Robert says that as a child he wasn't open about being Latino because he grew up in a primarily White neighborhood. As a person with a disability, according to Robert, people don't see my Latino-ness as much. "The disability is most obvious to most people," says Robert. But he doesn't feel more one than the other. Robert says he feels he is a member of both communities equally. And he uses it to his advantage in art. He said, "I had to embrace everything about myself in order to succeed because there are lots of great artists who could out paint me."

In one of his paintings, "Rage of Hope," Robert portrayed a young veteran who is an amputee using a skateboard to get around. Holding a cross in one hand, the subject compels the viewer to look at him. Robert uses bold colors and dramatic poses like this one to draw the viewer in to the piece.

Another one entitled "Armless Wonder & His Chick" shows a man who has no arms posing with his girlfriend.

Robert has even done self-portraits, One of his favorites is of him in his wheelchair - ornately decorated with skulls, chains and crucifixes - with his wife behind him, nude from the waist up and resting her arms on his shoulders.

Go to http://www.amfpa.com for more information about the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists.