(CNN) Marcus Thomas slowly dips his brush into one of the many droplets of paint laid out in front of his easel. With his hands resting on his chair, he carefully puts brush to canvas and, with a precise touch, paints a feather on a bird.
Every brush stroke is controlled by his mouth. Thomas is paralyzed from the neck down.
A final run
Thomas didn’t grow up painting. The avid outdoorsman and his future wife, Anne, spent their youth playing sports, bike-riding and skiing together.
After graduating college with a degree in outdoor recreation-resort management, Thomas worked at a ski resort on Beech Mountain in North Carolina. He hoped to one day run a Four Seasons Resort.
At the end of the workday on March 3, 1986, Thomas closed up the ski shop and hit the slopes. On his last run, he fell and slammed into the base of a tree.
“I have no memory of the accident. I just know the right people were in place to save my life. They resuscitated me three times on the way to the hospital.”
The near-fatal accident left Thomas a C3-4 quadriplegic at age 26, unable to move his arms or legs and breathing through a respirator. During his three-month stay in the ICU, Thomas had to learn to breathe on his own again while he and Anne Thomas adjusted to their new reality.
“We had to relearn how to move forward without the physical abilities we had prior to the accident,” he said. “Now, Anne is carrying us both.”
“He was paralyzed, but he still had his brain,” Anne Thomas said. “It’s amazing to have all of your cognitive abilities. We’re the lucky ones.”
Picturing the future
After his release from the hospital, Thomas pondered his future and started work on a master’s degree. But it was an offhand gift from his wife that enabled him to picture his future: a set of watercolors and a paintbrush he could hold in his mouth.
“I bought him the watercolors, he started painting, and that was it. He was hooked.”
Her first impression of his work?
“It was terrible. About the third-grade level.”
But for Thomas, it was a stroke of freedom.
“I realized I could live outdoors through my painting. Live outside of my mind, outside of the physical existence.”
Soon, an hour or two of painting a day turned into seven or eight.
Within a year and a half of his first painting, Thomas and his wife were selling calendars of his work and entering art shows.
Flight of the mind
Thomas now spends much of his time in front of a canvas with a mouth-stick paintbrush. If he’s not painting, he’s most likely at an art show with Anne where they sell his work.
“The best compliment is [when customers] see the work first. They engage with the work, and then with a little more exploration, they figure out that I’m painting it with my mouth.”
Thomas’ work includes wildlife scenes, landscapes and surreal Dali-like compositions.
“I love to message through a multilayered story. I love the idea of flight. Maybe that’s because I’m paralyzed. The freedom of thought is much the same as the freedom of flight.”
Anne Thomas said that painting has become the reason Thomas wakes up every day with a smile. Some of his larger works can take three months to complete, but as Thomas said, he’s “always living the dream of painting.”
It has given his life purpose and a way to vividly express himself.
“My voice isn’t so good anymore, but through my paintbrush, I can say a lot.”