U.S. Paralympic Project

Sophia Herzog • Silver Medalist • 2x World Champion • Breaststroke

Sophia Herzog • Silver Medalist • 2x World Champion • Breaststroke

Celebrating the Beauty and Strength of People with Disabilities Through Art

Perhaps you've felt as captivated and thrilled as I have since childhood while watching spectacular moments in Olympic competition. The talent, athleticism and determined mindset of the competitors are awe inspiring, as is the convening of different cultures from around the world. Yet never have I felt as thrilled or gratified as I have while creating sculptures with Paralympians for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Visitor Center in Colorado Springs. 

 About two years ago, I had visions of a new way to make art, a process that combines my love of sculpting, painting and portraying humanity, with an immediate medium of expression: painted sculptures formed directly from fabric draped over the bodies of posed models. It took a year to find the courage to invent my formula and method, build a body of new work and then introduce and share it with the art world. 

My first opportunity to create and exhibit my unique sculptures, and my first public art, was in 2018 with Colorado Ballet at its Armstrong Center for Dance. It was and is a great honor and pleasure to create with those dancers! During that time, I had the privilege getting to know several persons with disabilities. I started thinking about how fascinating it could be to juxtapose sculptures of them alongside the sculptures ballet dancers to show the strength and beauty of the human form in all of its diversity. This would help me bring together two of my passions: art and inclusivity. I just needed to connect with Paralympic athletes who could model and collaborate with me.

Meet the Paralympians

Fortunately my answer came when I was connected with U.S. Paralympic athletes. A wonderful Denver gallery owner and photographer, Robert Anderson, suggested that I contact the U.S. Olympics and Paralympics Training Center. Because my art was a strong match for the mission of its Training Center Visitor Center in Colorado Springs, they got back to me immediately. 

Sophia Herzog

Sophia Herzog

While waiting there for my first meeting, I happened to meet the Sophia Herzog, multi-medalist and world record-holding swimmer in the Para breaststroke – and a tour guide at the center. She became my first Paralympian art model and unexpectedly opened a huge door to the world of Paralympians and people with disabilities. She also has a strongly shaped figure that would show beautifully in the art.

After Sophia's painted sculpture was completed, I had the pleasure of creating art with Paralympian hand-cyclist Brandon Lyons and Para triathlete/cyclist Mohamed Lahna. 

 As I talked with and learned from these athletes, I started to see some trends. Here are some common characteristics that I discovered in them:

Mohamed Lahna • 4 x Gold Medalist • Triathlete and Cyclist

Mohamed Lahna • 4 x Gold Medalist • Triathlete and Cyclist

 1.    They must train as hard, if not harder, and have a mindset as strong as any Olympic or professional athlete. Watch Sophia workout Watch Mohamed workout Watch Brandon workout

2.    They are more comfortable in their skin than anyone I know (including myself). They are also very outgoing and welcoming. 

3.    The primary reason for their athletic pursuit is not to prove something to others or promote a cause, but for the sheer joy of accomplishment and competition. That, and the opportunity to travel internationally. 

4.    They “pay it forward” by sharing their experiences, participating in disability events, fulfilling Visitor Center requests and more. Besides training, competing and volunteering, Mo Lahna also parents his young children and  Sophia is finishing a college degree. 

I enjoyed being around them, and I’m hoping their superb attitude and personalities will rub off on me. And it was nice to notice some characteristics we have in common: a clear vision of what we want to accomplish, an attraction to big challenges, courage to put ourselves out there, unstoppable determination, and with Sophia, a shared enjoyment of making art. To know Sophia, Brandon and Mohamed is to love them. I will always treasure the memories of working with them.

OTPC multiple onlookers 7144 crop.jpg

The Training Center Visitor Center Promotes Disability Awareness

Another aspect of this project that I was pleasantly surprised by is the role the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee plays in promoting inclusion, support and awareness of issues around living with disabilities. Leading by example, they recently added "Paralympic" to their name to acknowledge the equality – and equal quality – of those athletes. That act means a lot to the Paralympians and all persons with disabilities. 

The USOPC also employs Paralympians such as Sophia Herzog and other persons with disabilities to be receptionists and tour guides at the Visitor Center. This gives people who might not otherwise interact with Paralympians or anyone with disabilities an opportunity to do so.  What a marvelous way to get people  interacting with people they might otherwise avoid. It adds a richness and connection to the tour experience while exemplifying inclusion. 

Creating the Art 

As I thought about how best to approach the Paralympian project, I decided that I had to make it more pictorial than any of my previous work.  Yet the sculptures could not be mere boring replicas. These sculptures had to look real enough for viewers to really see and connect with the athletes, yet artistic enough to leave some things to the imaginations of the viewers. The new artistic challenge in this pictorial approach was painting 3D figures. What looks correct from the front view can look completely wrong from a side view or vice versa. I worked fastidiously to get the balance right, and was relieved that I was able to do it. 

The best endorsement we've received is when Sophia and I were carrying her  sculpture into the Visitor Center. People in the parking lot did a double take and wandered over, exclaiming, "What is that?" They followed us inside along with other curious visitors who were on their way out. When we mounted it temporarily on an easel, all were absolutely fascinated and wanted to take and share lots of pictures of us with the art. At that moment, we knew the project would be a hit!

 Goals

I’m delighted that the center has installed three sculptures in the visitor center, and I'm looking forward to adding a few more works around the campus, including my first multi-figure mural. 

I hope that this project opens up opportunities for me to create similar art such as featuring people with disabilities for the new Atlantis Communityfacility in Denver. I also hope to find a way to use my art as way to support athlete Brandon Lyons' goal to become part of the clinical trials for epidural stimulation so that he and thousands of others with spinal cord injuries can regain use of their entire bodies. 

Lastly, I hope to attend the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games so I can cheer on my Paralympian art teammates. I've become hooked on Paralympic competition – locally, nationally and the big one.

Brandon Lyons • US Paralympic Cycling Team • 2019 World Champion qualifier • getting into his custom-fitted hand cycle

Brandon Lyons • US Paralympic Cycling Team • 2019 World Champion qualifier • getting into his custom-fitted hand cycle

Join Us

As I worked with the talented USOPTC and former Sesame Street Live technician, Michael Lucas, to install the legacy Paralympian sculptures at the entrance to the Visitor Center amphitheater, I was moved by hearing the soaring Olympic symphonic theme music, plus recorded historical announcers and crowd-cheering playing inside the circular surround-sound-and-movie theater. 

At that moment I realized that the Paralympian's accomplishments and victories are everyone’s  victory. They are a shining light in how far our society has come with inclusiveness and how much we can still gain. Expanding inclusiveness gives us all the satisfaction of winning big. 

I encourage you to visit the free U.S. Olympic Training Center so you also may enjoy the wonderful experience that I've had there.  And while you're at it, buy one or more Paralympics T-shirts, etc. online. Let's wear it proudly to share and show our support for these incomparable athletes.

Read the Team USA art project story

Follow the athletes and their mission on Instagram @USParalympics

Follow the conversation #SculptingPara #SculptingSophia #SculptingBrandon #Sculpting Mohamed

Learn more from my individual Paralympian model “News” blogs below and see the art on my “Art” page.

gina sophia hi 5 partial.jpg

Sculpting Paralympian Mohamed Lahna

Mo stretching pic cropped.jpeg

A triathlon is perhaps the most difficult physical challenge conceivable, but can you imagine doing consecutive distance swimming, cycling and running with only one leg? 

While contemplating a third Paralympian to feature in my U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Visitor Center series in Colorado Springs, I imagined portraying an athlete who runs with a prosthetic blade. Other Paralympic athletes highly recommended their friend Mohamed Lahna, a champion triathlete who, after the triathlon was dropped from Paralympic competition, joined the U.S. Paralympic Cycling Team. 

Mo was born in Casablanca, Morocco without a right femur or a leg connection to his hip. His tiny foot is where his knee should be. Because of Mo's condition, he was not allowed to participate in school sports. Although he felt sad and frustrated, this discouraging situation only fired his ambition to participate in sports at the highest level. 

His first opportunity came at age 11 when Mo's father introduced him to a Moroccan Paralympic swimmer who mentored Mo. He did not know yet that he would one day swim the Strait of Gibraltar. At age 20, he was fitted with his first real prosthetic. Mo rode a bike for the first time at age 25 and crossed the Atlas Mountains on it the following year. At 27 he ran for the first time and competed in a marathon a few months later. In 2014, Mohamed was the first adaptive athlete to complete the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon. Mohamed has won four gold medals to date as well as 13 podium finishes and was ranked fourth in the world as a Paralympic triathlete.  After winning the bronze medal for Morocco in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, Mo joined the USA Paralympic Triathlon Team so he could get the best training possible. 

Photo credit: Genki Yamashita

Photo credit: Genki Yamashita

Besides being super-athletic, highly competitive, and exceptionally friendly, Mohamed also excels at parenting. His two young boys accompanied him to my studio for his sculpture-forming session and the  morning cycle training he did before he arrived. The boys calmly sat while munching on a hearty snack. Later, as they became bored, each curled up to nap in their chairs. They were far more patient than most adults! It was quite apparent to my assistant and me the deep, loving and understanding relationship between father and sons. Mo's boys acceptingly followed his simple instructions and requests delivered with a soft but firm voice and steady gaze. 

Mo pose 7190.jpg
Mo art from backside 7294.jpg

Like my other Paralympic art models, Sophia Herzog and Brandon Lyons, I found Mo to be very outgoing, generous, humble and determined. His size and physique is that of a muscular Olympic gymnast. My only concern in creating a sculpture with Mo was my ability to incorporate his prosthetic running blade within the sculpture, without creating confusion for the viewer. But for Mo and me, it was definitely worth giving it our best effort. Happily, the uncommon form of Mo's blade turned out to be a fascinating feature, enticing the viewer and spurring curiosity. Mo is obviously running fast, yet there is something mechanical and strikingly different about his front leg. 

Mo's sculpture is even more fascinating to walk around in person. You can see his powerful body and speed emerging from its surrounding sculpted landscape. Yet the artwork also expresses itself as a lively, colorful painting. I am delighted and gratified to know Mohamed Lahna and to share his story with you through my art. Let's cheer him on as he pursues Gold for his beloved adopted country, U.S.A., in Tokyo 2020!

 You can learn more from Mohamed's website (watch the videos!), Team webpage and Triathlon Profile webpage.

 Follow the conversation #SculptingMohamed #SculptingPara 

 Follow the athletes and their mission on Instagram @USParalympics 

Sculpting Paralympian Brandon Lyons

Screen+Shot+2019-05-23+at+8.03.48+PM.jpg

As I inquired about the next Paralympic model for my United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee 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 & Paralympic Training Center (OPTC). 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 O&PTC 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. 

Painting+Brandon+L+rez.jpg
Brandon art Low rez.jpg

Brandon's art also reminds me that my art is oftentimes a painting as much as it is 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. 

Click hear to watch news coverage of Brandon’s Sculpture unveiling.

Learn more about Brandon at BrandonMLyons.wixsite.com and TeamUSA.org and @iron.lyons

Follow the conversation at #Sculpting Para #SculptingBrandon

P.S. My ultimate goal is to help fund Brandons’ Epidural Stimulation Trial after Tokyo 2020. This is his next 5-year goal – to restore the functioning of his full body, thereby advancing treatment for all others facing spinal cord injuries. We will reward a new work of art to any person or entity wishing to sponsor Brandon’s recovery effort.

IMG_6990.jpg

Sculpting Paralympian Sophia Herzog

With a Blues Brothers’ “Mission-from-God!” determination, I’ve been seeking opportunities to create beautiful art of people that also portray unique physiques and appearance. This stems from my passion to counter the overwhelming number of pervasive images used to depict what “ideal” people should look like. These visual messages promote fear over love – fear of being imperfect, unlovable, and outside the norm. Instead, wouldn't life be more interesting if, for example, Victoria’s Secret’s annual TV special featured women of all sizes and shapes?

Simultaneously, people have been suggesting to me for months that they’d like to see my art cast from many types of athletes besides ballerinas. Then, the artistic photographer and owner of Robert Anderson Gallery suggested contacting the nearby US Olympic & Paralympic Committee. Flashbulb! This potential opportunity would fulfill my desire to portray both athletic bodies and uncommon bodies – by making art of Paralympians.

In turn, the USOPC saw my art as a perfect match for their Colorado Spring’s Training Campus Visitor Center. Although the USOPC is inundated with proposals from artists and photographers, they responded quickly to my outreach. I was invited to discuss my project while enjoying a behind the scenes tour and lunch at the athletes’ cafeteria. The greatest gift of that visit was meeting Sophia Herzog.

Derek Duncan Shot- My Focus.JPG

I first noticed Sophia when I approached the Center’s reception counter, then again as she walked past me. Her body looked super-strong, beautifully curvaceous, yet intriguingly unusual. While introducing myself, I learned Sophia is an USOC Paralympic swimmer, silver medalist, and two-time World Champ in the breast stroke. (Plus since then, she broke the World Record for the 200m.) Sophia is also finishing her Broadcast-Business major while training for her final race in Tokyo 2020. Whew!

Later, I learned online that we share many interests and similarities, including a strong affection for making art. I have long-wanted to create figurative art that features water. So I invited Sophia to be my first USOC model to cast, but also to assist me with other steps in creating her art. From working with Sophia, I sense that she gives her all to any project she takes on. She immediately accepted my invitation to participate and came to my studio, plus saw my sculptures of dancers at Colorado Ballet.

Sophia is also decidedly self-confident and proud of her unique figure. For example, when we picked up lunch at a nearby Chinese buffet, the restaurant was packed with young families. I wondered how the kids would react to seeing Sophia’s 48” adult height and short arms and legs. (She has a dwarfism called achondroplasia.) I wondered how Sophia would feel and respond. Then I was comforted to realize she’s probably encountered this situation on a daily basis since she was first cognizant of being human. I was the one concerned and without such experience. Sophia went about the buffet same as me. Many customers did a slight double-take, then looked away. Kids spun around and bumped their parents or another child with a quizzical look on their faces. Then all went back to selecting food items.

This situation illustrates the commitment Sophia and I share to exemplify inclusion of everyone into all aspects of society, through our unique abilities and endeavors. Because of Sophia, these families could have a conversation about looking different and being similar. (Little did they know of her athletic accomplishments!) The more we see and interact, the more familiar and we become.

One of my favorite slogans I saw on the t-shirt of a man seated in his wheelchair says, “Don’t Dis My Abilities.” All I can see in Sophia and the persons I know facing “disabilities” is superior capabilities in most every aspect of life. How is it that Sophia could ever be considered “disabled?” She could swim circles around me, a former lifeguard.

Well for one, thing Sophia has to do maybe twice as many kicks and strokes! That’s an extra challenge. She recently had two knee surgeries – the breast stroke whip-kick is especially hard on knee joints. Sophia also had to believe she could put herself out there on the world stage. Likewise, Sophia’s body is more suited than mine to some situations. She could use both her hands and legs to grip and open a large artists’ gesso container in my studio. I could only wrestle the lid with my hands.

Sophia’s sculpture plus two more works will be installed at the USOC Visitors Center before July 4, 2019. We invite you to experience this emotionally compelling art and the athletes it represents. Plus, it is fascinating to see the entire Center. Perhaps you can be lucky enough to score a tour with Sophia.

Follow the conversation #SculptingSophia #SculptingPara

Follow Sophia’s journey on Instagram @SophiaHerzog and visit her Team webpage

Follow the athletes and their mission on Instagram @USParalympics