The paintings of Nicholas Knotaxis are making a profound mark on the art world: his solo shows have caught the keen eye of high-profile collectors, while Coachella and Adidas have come calling. Oh and he’s only 23.
Following several sold-put shows all over the United States, Nicholas Kontaxis will show his work in London for the first time. An international exhibition is a major moment for the young painter. The milestone is all the more extraordinary when you learn that the 23 year-old moves with great difficulty and his speech is limited.
One wonders What would he say to the guests come to look at his vibrant, large-scale murals. Nicholas may not be able to speak or convey the ‘meaning’ of his paintings with ease. With limited speech and physical disabilities, his painting is language. The brush stokes on his canvas are his words, the spontaneous layers of paint are his inflections and punctuation marks. Compositions are usually a series of quick brushstrokes that are closely connected in a bold color scheme with elements that harmonize and give the viewer a sense of optimism and joy. He cannot form the words to convey the emotions, but he doesn’t have to. He has created his own rule book and linguistic narrative.
Nicholas’ parents discovered that he had a brain tumour when he was 14 months old. He can speak but what he says changes as the seizures change. The titles of his works are certainly catchy, reading like mini-soundbites that lend an even greater sense of playfulness to the technicolour schemes of the paintings.
Now 23, he has had over 50,000 seizures, which strike him on a daily basis. Yet Nicholas, despite his pain isn’t tortured by his art. It is his art that gives meaning to his existence. Every picture tells a story, the in this case, it is one of joy and a reminder that something beautiful can come out of adversity. Ultimately, Nicholas’ story as much about a family pulling together, as it is about the abstract canvasses that explode with primary colours.
They refused to take the easy option. Institutionalising his was never part of the plan. When asked why they chose painting as a medium, Nicholas’ mother Krisann explains that they had a large number of paints lying around in an old garage cabinet. “As a youngter, Nicholas enjoyed laying down patterns on papers and was obsessed with vibrant colour. When no options were left for Nicholas in the school’s diabled working programme, mainly because of his daily seizures, we were worried he would never work in his life, which was devastating for us.”
Krisann explains that she and her husband Euthym, an emergency room doctor, had a lightbulb moment. He had excelled in art at high school, they had paint in the garage. The school district mandated that he had to earn a living in the job of his choice in order for them to allow him to pursue this at school in a job programme. As they knew he wouldn’t be able to occupy himself with a role that would occupy his time and give him a sense of purpose, they had to demonstrate that he could earn a living to continue.
Nicholas started to paint and while they showed promise, it was never about making money for his family. It was about giving him a routine and a purpose, so he had a reason to create. The first few paintings sold fast. His school allowed him to set-up a corner studio. Once he started to sell, a friend suggested holding an exhibition. Krisann and Euthyn, a doctor were novices in the art world, nevertheless, they showed his work which sold out immediately.
Euthym explains, “For some reason, it was important to us, no matter how trivial it seemed in the light of his health issues, for him to be part of the work force.” He adds, “We had to honestly assess strengths and weaknesses and accept extreme limitations. In Nicholas’ situation, his limitations resulted in the only possibility. It was a case of ‘Let the ‘no’s be the rail tracks of what it possible.’”
What the Kontaxis family have demonstrated is that love and support can overcome limitations. His mother Krisann defines him as an “outsider artist”, which rings true in the sense that he can’t discuss his work with his audience. But then, Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost, one of the most evocative pieces of writing in the literary canon and would have to keep the words in his head until his daughter would write them down for him. Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was left paralysed by a stroke apart from one blinking eye. The extraordinary memoir was transcribed via his left eyelid (also by his daughter).
Experts disagree on whether Michaelangelo had gout or osteoarthritis. The the famous sculptor had significant trouble using his hands but continued to chisel away and paint until he was almost 89. Goya experienced visual problems, dizziness and mobility issues with his painting arm bit his illness didn’t limit his abilities, only transformed them into something more robust. Paul Klee, Van Gogh, Matisse, did not let their lack of mobility dampen their spirits, it is in fact well documented that some of their symptoms may have contributed to their artistic practice. Van Gogh suffered from seizures and was born with a brain lesion, which didn’t prevent him from being one of the most renowned painters in art history. Matisse referred to his wheelchair-bound years after cancer surgery as “une seconde vie”, his second life, while allowed him to rethink his priorities.
Unable to travel like he used to, he saw the world and his art from a very different vantage point. Like Matisse, Nicholas is limited in his mobility and he won’t be able to travel to London for his first international exhibition, but he does experience beauty around him via the art he creates with his own hands. While he may not be able to travel, his work does and because his family refused to take the easy option, he is no longer anonymous outside this small nucleus, bus has been commissioned by Coachella, Addidas and collected by international figures such as Roger Federah, who bought several paintings for his home.
Kontaxis won’t be in London for his first international exhibition, but his work is a journey in itself; an experience of the beauty around him, via the art he creates with his own hands.