As I inquired about the next Paralympic model for my United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Visitor Center art project, Brandon Lyons was ecstatically recommended: “You should see this guy, I saw him doing endless pull-ups while in his wheelchair!,” “He’s an animal!,” “Yeah, he’d be great!.” But at that point, I hadn’t read into the depths of his story.
His Para journey began Memorial Day, 2014, at age 24. Brandon dove off a shallow pier and suffered an accident that caused paralysis below his chest. After a terrifyingly devastating event (including a problem with the helicopter enroute to the hospital) and all-consuming rehabilitation work, Brandon was back to his job at Ernst & Young within 4 months. In 2016, Brandon discovered the joy of handcycling; then, in 2017 he made the USA Paralympic Cycling team becoming a resident of the Olympic Training Center (OTC). Now he’s pedaling hard to win gold at Tokyo in 2020, and along the way, competing in fabulous, faraway places like Italy.
I was very pleased and honored when Brandon eagerly responded "yes" to my invitation. Even more so when I discovered how wonderful he is to work with and to know personally. The following Saturday, on his way to his weekly cycle training in the nearby foothills, Brandon stopped by my studio so we could design his art. When I went out to meet and assist him in the parking lot, Brandon had already gotten himself into his wheelchair, his handcycle out of his car, backpack and all, ready to go.
Brandon and others at the USOC wanted me to cast him posed in his cycle. I’d never cast anything that large, let alone a figure combined with a thingamabob, so I didn’t think it could work. I had something else in mind, but I wanted to at least give their vision a try. When I stepped back to look at the form of this first design, I was elated. It conveyed the energy, power and speed of Brandon, man and machine.
After the structure was formed and removed from Brandon seated inside his bike, we were awed by its size and physical detail; however, as the minutes passed, it started to slowly collapse from it's heightened weight, like the Wicked Witch melting to the floor. I was horrified, yet determined. I could not let my Paralympic subjects down by giving up.
Later on, I was able to resurrect the structure mostly to its original form. It was still powerful, fascinating, and Brandon's figure emerged through it. But was it good enough? Could it still serve to connect viewers to Brandon and inspire them with his story? Brandon was leaving soon for a 10-day competition trip. If I was to meet my self-imposed deadline to have it installed at the USOC Visitor Center by the 5th anniversary of Brandon's paralyzing incident, there wasn't time to recast.
Now what? I invited many people who were unfamiliar with Brandon's project to look at it so I could study their response. Thankfully, the look on their faces confirmed that this artwork was more than sufficient to fulfill its purpose. And for some who were familiar with my art, it was their favorite. Accidents and imperfections can be advantageous in art, allowing the mind's eye to imagine and invent.
I wondered at the serendipity of it all–Brandon overcoming his permanent disability to participate fully in life, and his sculptures' once perfect form now altered, but still beautifully compelling. I also wondered how his feet disappeared from the structure, which curiously illustrates that this cyclist cannot use his legs. You wouldn't notice this about the sculpture unless it was pointed out, just like I now only see Brandon's vast abilities, not his disability nor wheelchair.
Brandon's art also reminds me that my art is often both a painting and a sculpture. Its form comes alive with big brush stokes and small, reflective highlights. As you walk around it, stepping closer and away, it seemingly transforms–like getting to know a person after seeing a first visual impression.
When we returned to his car after that first design session, Brandon surprised me again by flinging open and holding the door for me as he allowed me to pull his precious, custom-fitted handcycle out of the studio. He could have managed to do this all himself, but just like making art, it was more gratifying for us to strive together.
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