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.

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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.

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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.

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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