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, Ryker’s paintings convey a sense of connection and a celebration of beauty. His artwork represents how he sees the world around him and how he chooses to live within it.
Ryker, born in Santa Clara, CA, spent three weeks in intensive care due to a lack of oxygen. He was soon diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, a brain injury that would affect his ability to speak and move.
He didn’t let this disability 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.
For the first three school years, Ryker was enrolled in special education classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. When it became clear he could keep up with his peers he was mainstreamed into regular classes. It took a lot of help for him to succeed.
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, play video games, baseball, and street hockey. He washed cars with a towel rubber-banded to his hand. In parades he rolled through the streets holding the banner for his high school marching band.
Becoming a Hard Hat Painter
Just holding a paintbrush was a challenge. At two years old, with lots of practice, Ryker had learned to control the joystick of his power wheelchair but he did not have the fine motor control to hold a brush in his hand 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. Next was a painting surface. Wheelchairs, hard hats, and easels, however, don’t fit well together. In his first art 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. The rolled carpet could be moved so he could paint at school, at home, and even at his grandparents.
Discovering New Ways to Paint as a Disabled Artist
When sitting on the floor became a challenge, 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 as a foundation skill for future editing.
Near the end of his academic studies in college he began taking all the basic art training courses. After finishing Drawing, 2 D design, and other art courses with asssitance to complete his assignments, he enrolled in Painting 1 and discovered he could use a drafting table as his easel. This gave him the opportunity to use his hard hat to paint independently.
Ryker rediscovered his love of painting. He switched his major and began developing as a professional artist from that moment. As a disabled artist he uses his hardhat and brush to paint with his head to this day.
Creating His Own Style
When he began to paint, 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 developed his skill over the next year until he was able to do a representational painting. His skills continued to evolve from there.
As a professional artist Donald Ryker now 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.
Influences of Franz Mark
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 us of color and depicting animals in blues, reds, and yellows to evoke different 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 and landscapes also often show the influence of modern impressionists.
Figurative Focus as Well as Landscapes and Still Life
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, and the disability 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
A Career as a Professional Artist
Exhibitions and Awards
Donald Ryker has had two solo shows in Silicon Valley: “Donald Ryker” and “Believe and Create Art.” He chose to brand himself with Believe and Create Art after that solo show because he wants to send the message that everyone including disabled artists can believe in themselves and find ways to create art.
He was honored at the annual SARC “Service Above Self” Awards where he received the California State Legislature Certificate of Recognition 2016 Innovation Award. Many of his prints now hang in the offices of San Andreas Regional Center. In 2016 he was a feature subject on the local NBC Program “Bay Area Proud” which has been broadcast multiple times.
In 2017 Ryker exhibited at the Triton Museum of Art, in Santa Clara, CA with other disabled artists. His work hung for 3 months and was featured in multiple events held there.
Art as His Passion and Work
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 is a disabled artist due to 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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