- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

GLEN BURNIE, Md. (AP) - Robert Florio fills in the dark, dropping branches of a tree in the wooded forest scene atop his easel.

His dog, Red, a Pug and Dachshund mix, sits underneath a nearby table in the Glen Burnie basement studio, never straying from his owner’s side.

Florio then drags his paintbrush across the sheet of paper. His brush makes a stroke he didn’t intend.

He extends his neck, dipping the brush into a plastic cup of water taped on the easel.

“It usually takes me a while to get adjusted,” he said.

With a furrowed brow, Florio blots out the error, guiding the brush with his mouth.

He prefers watercolors because they’re forgiving.

Painting has been a form of solace for the 33-year-old since his accident on June 20, 1996.

The night before he felt like he needed to pray before bed.

Dear God, Please keep me safe.

The next day, he visited a friend in Baltimore for a fun-filled day in a backyard pool.

Diving into the water, Florio hit his head at the bottom of the above-ground pool.

“My world has been totally different ever since,” he said.

The accident resulted in a spinal cord injury and made Florio a quadriplegic.

“The whole frustration of ‘Why me? Why, God?’ I went through all that. I felt frustrated and alone.”

Before the accident, Florio loved playing baseball.

After, at just 14, he was forced to relearn tasks such as writing his name, feeding himself, petting his dog and brushing his teeth.

A teacher at Kennedy Krieger Institute coaxed him out of a slump by giving him a mouthstick - a paintbrush attached to a stick and mouth piece - and a watercolor set.

Florio’s first paintings were of a black Labrador surrounded by yellow and blue, his tongue and tail wagging, and a sleepy blue dog laying on a surface of red and yellow.

He hasn’t put down his brush since.

He graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh online in 2002 and was accepted as a student member of the group Mouth and Foot Painting Artists in 2012.

“Most of the artists, especially the quadriplegic artists, have taken up art as a result of their therapy,” said MFPA artist counselor Kate March.

“One of the first things someone with a spinal cord injury is taught is how to sign their name with a pen in their mouth. As part of that occupational therapy, they start painting and it helps from an emotional standpoint as well.”

The MFPA represents more than 800 mouth and foot artists from 75 countries. In the U.S., 72 artists are affiliated with the organization. Florio is the only member from Maryland.

“He’s very good at portraiture,” March said. “He’s a very talented young man, a really great spirit and that is definitely reflected in his art.”

Prior to joining the group, he presented his portraits to Cal Ripken Jr. and Jay Gibbons of the Baltimore Orioles.

He’s also painted Babe Ruth, Joe Flacco, Ray Lewis and President Obama.

Several of his works, including the Obama portrait, hang at Art Worx Tattoo & Body Piercing in Baltimore.

Shop owners Carroll Saas and Joseph Hooker decided to display Florio’s work after he started hanging out and painting at the shop a few years ago.

The staff at Art Worx have tattooed two sleeves on Florio - after he drew the dragons and roses and other items himself. He’s the only artist, outside of shop staff, with work on the walls.

“He’s been hanging out here forever, so we’ve been watching him go from doodling to what he’s doing now,” Sass said.

Florio spends 40 to 80 hours on each painting. Often, he has to take breaks because of pain and soreness in his mouth and neck.

Before painting, Florio sketches out an image, another time consuming task.

“Pencils take me a while because they don’t drag easily,” he said. “I have to erase and I need help erasing.”

He’ll paint in his standing wheelchair and sketch in his seated wheelchair, taking on commissions whenever he has the chance.

“I take anything that comes my way, no painting is too small or big,” he said.

He paints every other day “on a good week.”

“Sometimes I get headaches or high blood pressure, so I’ll just stay in bed or I’ll take a walk with Red until my neck feels better.”

When he’s not painting, Florio can be found performing at comedy clubs in Timonium or Washington D.C. He got interested in doing comedy after seeing an ad.

He also designs video games and, in 2010, illustrated a children’s book, “The Mysterious Adventures of Cave Express.” He also self-published his autobiography, “Life! It Must Be A Comedy.”

“The artwork gets me through a lot of hard times,” he said. “I just can’t stop. I’m trying to do something good with my life.”

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Information from: The Capital, https://www.capitalgazette.com/

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