April 19, 2014

Jessica Pope
Communications and Media Relations Coordinator

VSU Welcomes Artist, Speaker, Documentary Film Star April 21-24

VALDOSTA — Valdosta State University welcomes artist, speaker, and documentary star Dan Keplinger to campus April 21-24. Over the course of four days, he will lead a series of printmaking sessions, conduct screenings of his Academy Award-winning film “King Gimp,” and speak at the annual Valdosta Mayor’s Council for Persons with Disabilities banquet.

Keplinger was born on Jan. 19, 1973, in Baltimore, Md. Ten years later he became a subject in the federally funded documentary “Beginning with Bong,” which told the story of how six children from different backgrounds and with disabilities would be educated.

Having developed cerebral palsy shortly after his birth, Keplinger was 18 months of age when he enrolled in Delrey School, operated by United Cerebral Palsy of Central Maryland. He continued attending special education schools until he turned 16, and at that time, with the encouragement and support of his mother and family, he made the leap to mainstream Parkville High School. He graduated in 1993 and went on to earn two bachelor’s degrees from Towson University, one in mass communications, the other in art.

The film “King Gimp,” which derives its title from a childhood nickname, chronicles Keplinger’s life, starting with his years in a special needs school and ending with his college graduation. It was co-produced by two Maryland-based filmmakers, Susan H. Hadary and William A. Whiteford — who also produced “Beginning with Bong” — as well as the University of Maryland and Tapestry International Productions. The 39-minute documentary, culled from over 80 hours of footage, is described as “a frank, uplifting epic of triumph over adversity … the portrait of an artist’s birth ….” It won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2000.

According to Keplinger’s website, it was his “discovery of painting and drawing that freed his spirit of expression from the prison of his body.” He noted that he finds his inspiration to create art in the abnormal and only works with subjects that invoke a powerful feeling or emotion in him. “My subjects have to have a connection with me that doesn’t come from the outside world.” He paints from photographs using a head stick and un-stretched canvas that is at least 4 feet by 5 feet in size; his friends assist him by cutting the canvas and mixing the paints.

“I paint sitting on the floor in a W-seated position, and my brushes are taped to my head stick dowel,” he explained. “I have a selection of 15 brushes taped to dowels … my friends only have to change dowels in my head stick. For [paint] palettes, I use Tupperware hors d’oeuvres trays that have seven sections. Before I paint, we create all of the colors that I want to use. I have foam that is about six inches thick, and it covers two-thirds of my living room floor to save my knees. The canvas lays flat on the floor, with jars of paint thinner in each corner so I don’t have to move them as I go around the painting. I just drag the palette around with me.”

“I work in my apartment, so I can paint whenever I feel like it,” he added. “I do not sleep that well, so I sometimes pull a pillow from my bed and nap on the floor by the painting.”

Keplinger’s art is his language, his way of communicating his innermost feelings and thoughts with his loved ones and the rest of the world. He cautioned that his work is sometimes dark because things are not always happy in his world, but he focuses on never losing sight of his mission in life and that is “to show everybody that they have the ability to persevere.”

“Obstacles and challenges are a universal part of the human condition,” he admitted. “We all face them in everyday life; however, we also have a choice as to how we deal with them.”

While in Valdosta, Keplinger will host screenings of his documentary “King Gimp” at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 22, at the Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts and at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, April 23, in the VSU Student Union. Both screenings are free of charge and open to the public. Attendees will have a chance to ask questions.

He will speak at the Valdosta Mayor’s Council for Persons with Disabilities banquet at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 21.

“Most people only see the physical barriers, but what about the ones you cannot see that stop us from reaching our goals? I discuss how much family, friends, and others support us,” he expressed on his www.kinggimp.com website. “I could not have achieved the accomplishments I have without a good network behind me. Everyone needs support to reach his or her goals in life.”

From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday, April 21, Tuesday, April 22, and Wednesday, April 23, and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, April 24, Keplinger will make a number of original prints in the VSU Department of Art Printmaking Laboratory, located in the University Center.

“This will give our students the chance to see an established full-time artist at work in the studio and will afford them the opportunity to interact with Dan in a more casual setting,” said Michael M. Smoot, printmaking instructor. “Finally, it will provide our art students with practical professional experience as they assist Dan in the creation of his prints.” 

Keplinger’s Valdosta visit is sponsored by VSU’s Department of Art, Office of Social Equity, James L. and Dorothy H. Dewar College of Education, and Access Office, along with the Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts and Valdosta Mayor’s Council for Persons with Disabilities.

“The main goal in bringing Dan Keplinger to VSU is to increase collaboration across disciplines here at VSU,” Smoot explained. “There is a lot of great work being done in different colleges and departments, and the more we are able to share experiences and resources, the better we become, both individually and collectively. Dan’s visit to VSU has served as an excellent catalyst for cross-campus collaboration because while he is an artist first, his life story challenges us to question our assumptions of what is possible. This perspective is applicable across the academic spectrum.”

Dr. Kimberly Tanner, director VSU’s Access Office, added, “I hope that people learn about who Dan is and about the art that he creates. I hope that people learn not to make assumptions about what a person can or cannot do … people, not just people with disabilities. I am especially hoping that our education students learn not to make assumptions about the abilities or inabilities of their students without designing opportunities for the students to participate and demonstrate their talents. Dan's story demonstrates what can happen when people make incorrect assumptions and also what can happen when people do not.”

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