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Mouth painter becomes role model for disabled

Hsieh's success story serves as inspiration among the underprivileged

Mouth painter becomes role model for disabled

In colorful shades, Hsieh Kun-shan puts down on canvas nature's wonders - sunrise and sunset, mountains and beaches, flowers in the wilderness and fish in a stream. His latest work, a half-finished oil painting of Guanyi mountain, stands on an easel in the small living room of his modest home in the capital's suburbs.

Hsieh's vibrant artworks have won him fame if not fortune, having been exhibited around the world. The feat is made all the more remarkable by the fact that, following a devastating electric shock 31 years ago, the artist was left without arms, only one leg and sight in only one eye. Hsieh holds his paintbrush between his teeth and has become one of the world's most esteemed "mouth painters."

Talent aside, Hsieh's tale of triumph over adversity has led him to become an inspirational role model for not only those with physical handicaps but for countless others: students, patients, prison inmates, charity workers and the underprivileged, to whom he gives his time to talk of the power of love, courage and perseverance.

"To me, there are no difficulties in life. There are only challenges to meet and problems to solve," says a smiling Hsieh, 47, in his second-floor apartment in Panchiao suburb, which is neatly arranged by his wife Lin Yeh-chen and their two teenage daughters.

"I always think about the bright side - appreciating what is left in me rather than wallowing in regret over what has been taken away," Hsieh says, gesturing with the stump of his right arm, which was amputated after his life-changing accident.

It happened when he was 16 and working at a factory. He was carrying iron rods that touched high-voltage cables overhead.

"Loss of the limbs and physical pains did not weaken me. But my heart was broken when I saw the tears, despair and helplessness on my mother's face," Hsieh recalls. "I was only adding more sorrows to the woman who was already leading a miserable life. She had to take care of me like I was an infant. I made up my mind then that I must make myself useful, and I shall never let her cry again," says Hsieh.

Against all odds, it was a promise he kept.

Childhood hardship

Born in 1958 in a remote, mountainous town in the eastern coastal city of Taitung, Hsieh's parents, poor and illiterate, could only find odd jobs for meager pay to feed the family of five. As the eldest child, Hsieh was a man in the house at an early age.

"Very often I had to carry my months-old sister on my back and walk two or three miles to reach my mother so she could breast-feed the baby," Hsieh recalls.

At the first light of dawn, his strict father would wake Hsieh and his younger brother to make a fire for their mom to cook breakfast. It also became his routine to pick up discarded rotten vegetables at open markets after school to feed ducks and chickens they raised at home.

"Childhood hardship strengthened my willpower. In a way it prepared me for future adversities," he says.

Aged 12, he quit school to find work to help support the family. He found his first job at an animal feed farm before moving on to factory work.

As the country's industry started to boom, the father sold all their belongings and moved to capital Taipei dreaming of a better life.

"The noise and crowds in the big city were so much in contrast with where I grew up. My hometown, although primitive at that time, filled my childhood with fond memories - the beautiful landscape and simplicity of rural life," Hsieh reminisces of the places he now revisits on canvas.

But the family's newfound hope suffered a cruel blow.

"I was helping the garment factory I was working for move to a new place. All of a sudden, the steel rods I was carrying were sucked up by high-voltage wires," he says, somehow smiling. "Making things worse, for some reason I had taken my shoes off that day, which made my whole body an electric conductor."

Hsieh was knocked unconscious immediately. He woke up two days later feeling unbearable pain from his badly burnt legs and arms.

Doctors had no choice but to amputate some of his limbs to save his life.

He lost most of his right arm, his entire left arm, his right leg below the knee. His right eye was severely damaged, and his left foot was deformed. He completely lost the sight of his right eye years later when his sister accidentally hit it with a staple when fixing his books.

"When I woke up after the surgeries, I saw my mother weeping by my bed. She cried for many days to come. I thought, What have I done to the woman when life was already cruel to her, being abandoned by her first husband only to marry my father, who was unloving and liked to gamble?"

The mother refused to leave her boy on the streets or at marketplaces to beg - as many physically handicapped were forced to do - but dutifully took care of him like a newborn.

"Babies grow up to relieve her of the job, but I will be her life-long burden if I don't become independent. I've already lost too much that I must make the best use with what is left," Hsieh says he thought at the time.

The huge medical expenses added financial woes to the family. "Poverty and debt haunted us like nightmares," he says. His father, who peddled fruit, ice bars and snacks, and gathered refuse for money, had to borrow constantly to cover the boy's treatment.

Hsieh was confined in the family's rented small apartment for the following seven years. The only five short trips he made outside were to get a haircut.

"But I was not in exile. I was thinking of ways to take care of myself so as to start a second life. My body was confined but my mind was free," says Hsieh, who patiently began to learn to live with his disabilities.

He invented a special device which could be chained to the remainder of his right arm and have a spoon attached to it so he could feed himself. He also designed a long hook which could be attached to the chain to unzip his pants, and he even learned to bathe himself.

Hsieh was seeking a meaningful life that he had control over.

"We should not live on bread alone. We must ... enrich our lives and open our mind," he says.

In his small room, Hsieh decided to paint for a living, remembering how he had enjoyed doodling on textbooks during school lessons childhood and been punished by his teachers. He started teaching himself to sketch with a pencil in his mouth and found it cathartic.

"I found peace and contentment in drawing," says Hsieh, who even taught himself to sharpen pencils with his mouth holding a small knife.

'Love, warmth and light'

In his early 20s, Hsieh escaped his enforced isolation and joined two other self-taught peers in forming a studio selling oil paintings called "One Step Behind." He insisted on moving out of his mother's home, having an artificial leg attached so he could move around.

A primary school art teacher, Chen Hui-lan, offered to give the trio free painting lessons. Persistent as ever, Hsieh was the only one who kept them up.

"I was so touched. It is hard to imagine such a person bears no bitterness but is full of live and hopes with a big heart," Chen says of her protege and friend.

The most dramatic change in Hsieh's life came the day he met well-known oil painter Wu Ah-Sun at Wu's art exhibitions in Taipei. Impressed by Hsieh's eagerness to learn, Wu agreed to let him attend without charge a class he gave at a university. He also helped promote Hsieh's works.

It was at this class that Hsieh met his future wife Lin Yeh-chen, a pretty girl working at an electronics firm. Sharing the same interest, the couple often travelled on buses and trains for field trips.

Chen and Wu were the only guests when Hsieh, at 29, married Yeh-chen, four years his junior, in a simple court wedding without blessings of the bride's family. Hsieh's mother had died three years earlier.

"Many people say they admire my courage and the sacrifice I have made, but this is really not the case. It might be so on earthly terms - that he is physically handicapped - but we make each other stronger and our minds are together," says Yeh-chen, a lively, genial woman.

She describes Hsieh as a "real man who beams love, warmth and light with extreme optimism."

"When I first met him, I thought those qualities were only a disguise. But later I realized he is indeed a simple, happy and contented person who brews no self-pity but faces his destiny with great courage and will," she says.

Sharing the tasks

As Hsieh works to support the family, Yeh-chen takes care of their two daughters Mumu, 17, and Beibei, 14.

To make up the education he once lost, Hsieh managed to finish six years of high school studies at the age of 30.

"My parents-in-law are now proud of me since they know I have strong shoulders for their daughter to lean on," Hsieh laughs.

Hsieh has won many art awards and in 1987 became a member of the Liechtenstein-based Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World which offers grants to some 650 such artists in 60 countries.

He receives US$3,000 a month, while he can sell a medium-sized oil painting for some US$5,000. He also receives payments for some lectures. In 2002 he was elected one of the association's six board members.

Hsieh's life story is now part of Taiwan's lore. It is included in textbooks for elementary and high-school children and was made into a 30-episode TV series in 2003 in which Hsieh played himself as an adult. He wrote a biography in 2002 which was adapted into a children's book a year later.

Now 47, Hsieh devotes a great deal of time to helping others.

"Do you know anyone who is more unfortunate than me? But do you also know anyone who is as lucky as me?" are the two questions he often asks audiences when invited to speak at public events.

"I was given so much help and kindness in my life by people I didn't know, and I want to give whatever I can to the needy," Hsieh says.

Now he gives some 300 speeches a year including some in China. Lugging a big bag on his shoulder, he travels by bus, train, taxi, airplane and subway by himself.

"With a lot of help from friendly people, of course," he says.

Yeh-chen accompanies him only when he has to stay overnight.

"Because I have to help him button up - this is the only thing he cannot do by himself," she says with a laugh.


Updated : 2021-05-10 14:14 GMT+08:00