In the lobby of the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre in Vancouver, Canada, you will find the largest mouth painting ever created- a beautiful 6X8 oil painting called “Visions of Possibilities” (view) – and this beautiful image of two young girls on English Beach was painted by their father and vent-dependent quadriplegic, Robb Dunfield.
Robb, a C3-5 quad from Vancouver as well, is one of Canada’s most accomplished painters. Thrown into the world of painting after a fall from a balcony when he was 19, painting is just one of his outlets. He’s also a pioneer of group homes for people with severe disabilities and a public speaker for the Rick Hansen Foundation.
A man that has been paralyzed for longer than many of us have been alive, this is the story of esteemed artist – Robb Dunfield.
Why he’s fearless
It all began with the stupid decision to break into a house that was under construction. Robb and some friends wanted to get a better view of tall ships coming into the harbor, so they broke into a home that had a balcony.
Unfortunately the balcony wasn’t complete, and it collapsed when Robb and his friends got on it, falling to the ground 30 feet. Robb was the only one to sustain a serious injury however. His friends only had a few broken bones.
Robb was 19 when his accident occurred, and it was only a C3-5 break as well, but since his injury happened in 1978 he didn’t receive the steroid medication to prevent swelling, and was left with C2 function; which means he needs to use a ventilator and has no movement below his neck. This has been Robb’s reality for the last 35 years and he’s now 54 years old.
When his injury occurred, Robb living for 35 years post-injury onward was the last thing any of his doctors would have predicted. But he, as well as fellow rehab-mates, all proved doctors expectations wrong of their high level of injuries and survived, and wanted to move out of the hospital and live on their own (which was unheard of at the time for someone with such a high level of spinal cord injury).
They made it happen though. And after 7 years of working the system and planning, Creekview open in 1985 – the world’s first group home for people with severe disabilities. And it was here where Robb met his future wife Sarah; a PCA who eventually became much more.
By 1992, he and Sarah were married, and he was gleeful at the fact that he was defying all expectations of his life, from living outside a hospital to getting married. And a few years after that he also became a father, blowing those expectations out of the water too. They had their twin girls, Sophia and Emma, in 1996.
But painting is the one area of Robb’s life that really allowed him to tap into his creative side; a side that may not had developed had his injury not occurred. Before his injury, Robb was a self-described “cocky athlete” obsessed with skiing. Anything artsy was so not on his radar.
“I could’ve done a million things when I was able-bodied, but after my injury I was limited to maybe 100 or so things. I became determined to become perfect at the things I could still do,” he says, which is why Robb took painting and ran with it.
Influenced by painters like Emily Carr and Tom Thompson, he’s surged in his talent, and has gone on to sell thousands of pieces of his work, raising over $1.5 million from his art sales for Paraplegic Associations.
Robb also published a book profiling some of his best work, If Sarah Will Take Me, in honor of his wife in 1998, and he continues to create photolitho prints of his work. Some of Robb’s most well-known work also appears on Canola Vineyards wine bottle labels, which he’s been doing since 1987 and designs eight unique labels every year.
After his daughters were born, Robb became even more serious about making ends meet, wanting to fully support his family. In 2002, he was hired by the Rick Hansen Foundation to be their Senior Coordinator for their Ambassador Program, where he recruits, trains and provides support for people with spinal cord injuries across Canada who are part of their network.
He’s also become good friends with Rick Hansen himself. A few years ago, Rick made it possible for Robb to go fishing again after three decades and by getting him a Sip ‘n Puff fishing pole, which allowed him to reel a fish in completely on his own. The experience was so powerful that he cried, and he’s created two paintings of Haida Gwaii, the islands they were fishing at, in honor of this experience.
A man who’s been determined since day one to stick to the path he would have been on if his injury hadn’t occurred, Robb has made this happen. It may not be easy some, but Robb is excited to see what the next day will bring, and he’s managed to figure it all out.
Have you developed a new skill post-injury?
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