Sharing his voice through art

By Rebecca Kirkman

Keplinger retrospective show celebrates anniversary of ADA, “King Gimp” documentary

Dan Keplinger in front of his paintings
Dan Keplinger photographed for a 2007 issue of “The Towerlight” (photo by P. Smith).

It’s been 20 years since the Oscar-winning short documentary “King Gimp” thrust Dan Keplinger ’98, ’07 into the spotlight. Written by Keplinger, who has cerebral palsy, and distributed by HBO, the short film follows the artist’s life from age 13 to his graduation from Towson University.

In the film, Keplinger discovers a passion for art as a student at Parkville High School — where he began painting and drawing with a paintbrush attached to a headpiece — and continues that passion at TU. “Art gave me a way to express myself without anyone interpreting for me,” he says in the film.

Two decades later, the artist and disability rights activist has exhibited and spoken around the globe, including multiple solo shows at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York City. He received his MFA in studio art with a scholarship from TU in 2007.

This fall, on the 20th anniversary of the film and the 30th anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Keplinger returns to Towson for a retrospective of his work. The Department of Art + Design, Art History, Art Education presents “Public/Private Conversations,” an exhibition of Keplinger’s work curated by J. Susan Isaacs. Originally scheduled for April 2020, the exhibition has been rescheduled for Sept. 22–Oct. 20 at Towson Town Center.

A chance encounter set the exhibition in motion.

Occupational therapy clinical associate professor Marlene Riley and her husband David, co-chair of the Towson Creative Partnership, were enjoying breakfast at Towson Hot Bagels last July when they ran into Keplinger and his wife Dena.

As they ate, the couple discussed the upcoming projects for the Towson Creative Partnership, a public art extension of the Towson Chamber of Commerce. “We’re having that conversation, and we saw Dan and his wife, and I said, ‘You know, you need to involve someone with a disability in a public art opportunity. Let’s talk to Dan,’” recalls Marlene Riley, who is a member of TU’s Accessibility Special Interest Group.

With Keplinger on board, the idea was immediately embraced by the university and greater Towson community. In addition to an accessible exhibition of Keplinger’s work hosted at Towson Town Center, more than three weeks of accompanying programming was developed with support from the College of Fine Arts and Communication, College of Health Professions, Accessibility and Disability Services, Office of Inclusion and Institutional Equity and the Office of the Provost. Additional funding was provided by BTU — Partnerships for Greater Baltimore and the Kaplan Fund.

Art history professor and gallery curator Susan Isaacs, who taught Keplinger and worked on his MFA show in 2007, says “Public/Private Conversations” will span two decades of the artist’s work in a range of media. “We have mixed media, etching, printmaking and digital,” Isaacs says. “Danny has written artist statements for every work in the show.”

For the hearing impaired, the statements will appear as labels next to each work. For the visually impaired, Isaacs has created an audio-visual walkthrough of the gallery, reading each artist statement and describing the corresponding piece of art.

What can visitors to the exhibition expect?

“His works are powerful,” Isaacs says. “They’ll see that over time his work has become more vocal in terms of the disability community. It shifted from being very much autobiographical to autobiographical but with much more personal information about his concerns.”

Keplinger says the emotions he captures in his art often spark conversations. “My work has struck such a chord with people that they had to leave notes for me to let me know how much they can relate to a piece,” he says. “There are others that tell me about an episode in their life to see if that is what a painting is talking about. The common thread is that these conversations may never happen with me, or others, if not for my art.”

The celebration aims to engage many overlapping communities in the greater Towson area with accessible events and workshops. A collaboration between the Community Arts Center and TU occupational therapy students will highlight accessible art activities. The Volunteers for Medical Engineering, based out of the nearby IMAGE Center for Independent Living, will demonstrate how engineers collaborate with occupational therapists, physical therapists and nurses to design custom assistive technology. A digital representation of the exhibition will open the experience to those who are unable to visit in person.

A screening of “King Gimp” will be followed by a panel discussion with Keplinger and faculty who were critical to his success at TU, including former College of Fine Arts and Communication Associate Dean Greg Faller and professors Stuart Stein and Beth Haller.

As a student at TU, Keplinger faced many challenges with determination. While some saw his cerebral palsy as a barrier to studying art, several key figures at the university collaborated to find adaptations and accommodations to allow Keplinger to meet course requirements.

One of them was Stein, a professor in the Department of Art + Design, Art History, Art Education, who served as a mentor to Keplinger during his undergraduate and graduate studies.

“As I got to know Dan, even early on, he really separated himself from most students,” recalls Stein, who worked with Keplinger to find digital and computer-based adaptations where necessary. “Everything was more work for him, took more determination, [but] I think Dan and I were really intrigued and, in our own way, excited about meeting the challenge.”

Stein credits Towson University with empowering faculty and staff to give Keplinger the support he needed. “In the end, the university was flexible enough, open enough, to trust the individuals who were working on it, including myself, and support that work at the most basic level, which is teacher–student,” he says. “That kind of trust is really what universities are built on, and that’s what was so critical. That there was room to do that, and there was support to do that.”

When Keplinger began painting, Stein was blown away. “He gradually got to another level. His paintings developed his own kind of strength and vocabulary and brush marks,” says Stein, who later exhibited in a show with Keplinger at Fleckenstein Gallery in Hampden. “His strength of character comes through in every brushstroke. Every mark that he made, his vocabulary took on a lot of his strengths, as well as being a product of the fact that he painted with a brush attached to his head.

“Dan as an individual was full of emotion, with lots and lots to give to his artwork. It was just a matter of having an audience, having acceptance and having people who would give assistance where needed. But he did all the work.”

Stein describes Keplinger as a boundary-pusher — as an artist and a student with disabilities. “It takes really strong individuals to forge new paths,” Stein says. “When he came back for his MFA, it was almost like an opposite situation. He came back as a figure, and he deserved that credit because this guy broke icebergs with the front of his head. When it comes down to it, whatever weaknesses Dan had were dwarfed by the drive that he had inside.”

Keplinger says collaborating with TU for his exhibition will be a poignant moment. “Working with TU on this event has been like doing a project with new and old friends, and we all respect what each other can contribute. For those in this group that have known me for years, I hope they can see how I keep growing as an artist.”