Donald J Ryker is a professional artist with a vital, enthusiastic and unusual view of life. He sees the world and paints it — in vivid colors — from the seat of his power wheelchair.
From emerald green wolves to golden polar bear families, purple elephants, cobalt blue horses and yellow-jacketed service dogs, partnered with their owners, Ryker’s paintings convey a sense of connection and a celebration of beauty. They represent how he sees the world around him and how he chooses to live within it.
Ryker was born in Santa Clara, Calif. He spent three weeks in intensive care due to a lack of oxygen at birth and was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, a brain injury that would affect his ability to speak and move.
But he didn’t let that stop him, or even slow him down. Ryker received his first power wheelchair when he was 2 years old. He went from lying on the floor unable to roll or crawl, to wheeling through shopping malls, soccer games, parks, and classrooms.
His family had a “Can Do” attitude and were creative at figuring out how he could experience everything all children enjoy. He learned how to fish and play video games and baseball and street hockey. He washed cars with a towel rubber-banded to his hand and held the banner for his school’s marching band in parades.
For the first three school years, Ryker was enrolled in special education classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. But it became clear he could keep up with his peers, so he was mainstreamed into regular classes. It took a lot of help for him to succeed.
Just holding a paintbrush was a challenge. At an early age, with lots of practice, Ryker had learned to control the joystick of his power wheelchair but he did not have the fine motor control for a brush and paint. So, when he signed up for an art class in high school, his mother suggested he use his head instead. The first step was to attach a paintbrush to a hardhat.
Wheelchairs, hardhats, and easels, however, don’t fit well together. In his first class, Ryker figured out the best way to paint was sitting on the floor with his canvas propped on a roll of carpet. This allowed him to look down at his work. He was mobile so he could paint at school, at home, and even at his grandparents.
But sitting on the floor became a challenge, so Ryker began channeling his creativity into editing videos. It was something he could do in his chair, using a joystick. After graduating high school, he visited video editors in Los Angeles who suggested he take lots of art classes in college to improve his editing.
Near the end of his academic studies in college he began taking all the basic art training. When he discovered he could use a drafting table as his easel, Ryker rediscovered his love of painting. He switched his major and began developing as a professional artist from that moment. He uses his hardhat and brush to paint with his head to this day.
When he began, Ryker had such limited range of motion that he could only work with abstract brush strokes.
In 2010, for the first time he was able to have enough control of his brush to create recognizable images. He increased his skill over the next year until he was able to do a realistic painting.
Ryker paints with acrylics on canvas and uses thick paint to have better control. He likes the texture and brushstroke this consistency gives his work. Blending and detail work can still be difficult so he has developed a style of painting in layers. He starts with a base pigment, then adds layers of colored glaze to give depth, highlights and lowlights. He uses different brushes and sponges to apply the paint to achieve different effects.
During his college art classes Ryker became intrigued with he work of German Expressionist Franz Marc. Marc
had been influenced by Cubist artists and was best known for his vivid use of color, depicting animals in blues, reds, and yellows to create certain emotions.
In time, Ryker has developed his own Expressionist style, using vibrant color to create such images as his “Blue Weimaraner,” “Bison,” and “Green Horse.”
Even when painting in realistic tints Ryker uses saturated colored glazes to create highlights and lowlights and add depth. Ryker’s backgrounds also often show the influence of modern impressionists.
As his techniques have evolved, so has his subject matter. Ryker’s collection now includes his reflections on family, fishing, movies, gaming, still lifes, weather patterns, the disabled community with service dogs. Often his subjects are in motion, or caught from an interesting angle. But that’s not surprising when you know that this artist sees the world from a unique perspective — from the seat of a wheelchair — where he has found a way to celebrate the challenges, colors and beauty of life.
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“Every morning I wake up and walk in where Donald Ryker’s art is hanging. Seeing it reminds me of the work that went into creating it and I am inspired for the day.”
— Joey Furtado
Donald Ryker has had two solo shows in Silicon Valley: “Donald Ryker” and “Believe and Create.”
He was honored at the annual SARC “Service Above Self” Awards where he received the California State Legislature Certificate of Recognition 2016 Innovation Award. In 2016 he was a feature subject on the local NBC Program “Bay Area Proud.”
In 2017 Ryker exhibited at the Triton Museum of Art, in Santa Clara, CA.
Ryker has now received his Associate of Arts degree and lives independently in downtown San Jose, where he, his chair and his service dogs have been a presence for the past 10 years.
He paints almost every day in his home studio on the sixth floor of a modern high rise, where he has natural light and views overlooking Silicon Valley, the foothills, and life on the busy city streets below.
His drafting table doubles as an easel and a place to eat; his art supplies are in a rolling tool chest nearby, and his hard hat is perched on the counter. Ryker sits in a colorfully spattered “extra” wheelchair he uses for painting. His work in progress is displayed on the walls and down his long entry hallway.
At any time he can look up and think about what to do next on the four or five paintings he has in progress.
As a professional artist, Ryker sees his paintings as both his work and his passion. He has physical limitations from Cerebral Palsy but he would like people to know a person in a wheelchair can be a part of society, accomplish their goals and dreams, and make a contribution. He feels that he makes that statement with the success of his art business and with every colorful painting he completes.
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