Esteban Millan leans over his desk and transfers the thin paintbrush that is clutched between his lips to the brace on his right hand, curving his mouth slightly in order to guide the paintbrush with his head. Tiny purple lines slowly appear on the lamp that he is making to accompany an illustrated book about a family that learns to solve problems with limited resources. He understands the topic.
Originally from Cuernavaca, Mexico, Esteban has been a painter and potter all his life. In the early '80s, he moved to New York to study architecture, but when his college credits didn't transfer from Mexico, he took a break and worked construction to save money for school. In 1993, he fell off a roof and dropped eight feet to the ground below, sustaining a head and spinal-cord injury that paralyzed more than 98 percent of his body. He stopped creating art for a year and a half. But despite his condition and a number of setbacks during therapy, Esteban was committed to becoming an architect and opening a gallery. After many months of therapy, he decided to try art again.
This past weekend, Esteban and his wife, Doreen, opened Siempre Viva Art, a gallery displaying work by disabled artists (and some able-bodied artists as well). "This gallery is about rethinking the possibilities, celebrating the resilience of the human spirit and showing that people can overcome adversity," Doreen says. In addition to pieces by Esteban, the gallery currently features work by Cindi Grober, a chronic asthmatic whose bones and organs are damaged from steroid treatment; Bill Marshall, a brain-injury survivor who is perhaps best known as the "Columbine Hands" sculptor; and Robert Thome, a paraplegic painter who uses his mouth to paint. The gallery is located near Craig Hospital so patients can visit and gain hope and inspiration about their own treatment.
Esteban's art, which he completes with the aid of custom-made tools, reflects the theme of people's interconnectedness. In 1998, he raced in the Dublin City Marathon for the Leukemia Society of America and donated $11,000 from his art sales to the same cause. He plans on going back to school to finish his architecture degree this winter. "I hope this gallery inspires people," Esteban says. "A wheelchair doesn't hold you back -- your mind does."