With each turn of his wheelchair, Steve Gleason created one-of-a-kind contemporary art.
At his side, artist Michael Hunt brushed yellow, blue, green and aqua acrylic paint on the wheels of the former New Orleans Saints safety’s chair as needed during the three-hour-plus process. Four gallons of paint were eventually used.
“And then he would do his thing. I mean, he really did some incredible design work and it was beautiful,” Hunt said from his Harahan studio. “The whole concept is Steve Gleason makes his mark on the world once again.”
One of Gleason’s marks was that famous blocked punt against the Atlanta Falcons in 2006 during the Saints’ first home game in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina. More recently, Gleason, who played for the Saints from 2000-2007 and retired from the NFL in 2008, has become the face of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Diagnosed with the debilitating neurodegenerative disease in 2011, Gleason, 38, has championed the cause for ALS research.
Gleason proposed his wheelchair art project to well-known poster artist Hunt, 48, who had previously painted a depiction of that blocked punt. A fundraiser for the Gleason Foundation, Gleason was able to sign some of the limited-edition prints of that painting before losing all use of his hands.
With a high-tech wheelchair powered by Gleason’s eyes through his Microsoft Surface Pro, Gleason can also speak with a synthetic voice and write via a computer screen attached to the chair, and make art.
“We covered the entire floor (about 40 square feet) with this canvas board which could accommodate the weight of that chair, which is incredibly heavy,” Hunt said. “He was so excited about doing something special, not just rolling in a straight line, so he wound up spending over three hours using multiple colors.
“We cut 5-by-7-inch or larger swatches of the best sections of this entire area he had created, and we framed that piece of art along with a special version of the original painting that I had done of Steve,” Hunt said.
One thousand of these will be available at a price of $495 each.
Although the process of wheelchair art is seen on YouTube, Hunt said many of those artists have use of their hands and none is driving with their eyes.
“This was another first in the history of ALS,” he says on a brief video made in conjunction with the project. “Witnessing it was both inspiring and unforgettable.”
Hunt didn’t meet Gleason until the day his original painting was unveiled at the Saints’ training facility. Quarterback Drew Brees asked Hunt to recreate the blocked punt scene, and the artist said he was happy “to give back.”
“Many people, when they look at the painting, think it’s a photograph because I painted it almost 6-feet wide and 3-feet tall … I painted it that way because the importance of that blocked punt becoming this symbol of recovery in New Orleans after Katrina, I really didn’t want to do an artistic interpretation of it, because I wanted it to stand alone,” the artist said.
When such a large painting is reduced to a smaller print, the mistakes can’t be seen, making it ultra-realistic, Hunt explained.
“I don’t even look at it as a Saints print,” Hunt said. “I see it as a representation of hope, recovery and the turning point in the city actually coming back, and now, to me, it’s become a symbol of complete determination not to give up.”
Take 5 with Steve
1. Did you have a plan in mind for how you wanted your new wheelchair art to look, or did you just kind of experiment as you went along?
I don’t think any of us really knew how it would work until we started. Once we figured out the best way to do it and started adding more colors, it was just a matter of driving my chair in as many patterns as I could. I think Michael (Hunt) and his team did all the work chasing my chair around and adding paint to the wheels.
2. What do you think of how the combo of your art framed along with the poster turned out?
(Gleason doesn’t typically answer questions regarding his image, so he let Team Gleason Associate Executive Director Clare Durrett take this one.)
Michael’s painting is amazing in and of itself, but combined with Steve’s unique and creative tire marks as his signature is simply an incredible combination of art and minds.
3. What’s the latest with the Gleason House (a care facility for ALS patients) and Team Gleason?
The Team Gleason House is moving forward, and we are excited to finally showcase the technology to other people living with ALS.
Before the Steve Gleason Act passed, Team Gleason was providing technology to most of the people who needed communication devices, because of rules changes within Medicare. Thankfully, with champions like Sen.(David) Vitter, Steve Scalise, Charles Boustany and Cedric Richmond, we were able to pass the legislation, ensuring Medicare would provide uninterrupted usage and ownership of this vital technology. Now that the legislation has passed, Team Gleason is now focused on rebuilding our drained resources and continuing with all our efforts to help those living with ALS.
4. I think fans would be very interested in an update healthwise. How are you feeling at present?
There is nothing easy about living with a chronic disease like ALS, but awesome ain’t easy.
5. What’s the latest on ALS research, from your perspective?
People always say, “ALS is not incurable, it’s underfunded.” Since the Ice Bucket Challenge and expanded awareness of the disease, there has been a significant increase in funds being spent on research. We just helped launch Answer ALS, the largest single coordinated and comprehensive research effort ever proposed for ALS. While it seems we are still a long way from a treatment or cure, we believe research for ALS and other complex neurodegenerative diseases is an expanding universe of knowledge. We are proud to have played an integral role in pushing this further and faster.