Brenton Swartz spent the past 20 years mastering his realistic style of painting with dedication, precision and absolute focus – a skill he had to learn after a tragic shooting left him paralysed.
The 41-year-old from Atlantis near Cape Town lost his mom when he was just 15 years old. Two months after that, his life changed in a flash when his brother accidentally discharged a firearm.
“My younger brother was playing with a gun and it went off and he shot me. I was left paralysed from the neck down, with only partial use of my arms,” Brenton tells us.
He was hospitalised for eight months and doctors said he’d never walk again. After being discharged, he enrolled at the Astra School for Learners with Special Educational Needs in Cape Town.
“I realised that if I wanted to achieve something in life, I had to finish school,” he says.
Brenton matriculated in 1998 and with the same focus that saw him complete his schooling, he decided his next goal would be studying architecture – something he’d been interested in from an early age.
A few years later he completed his studies and received his national diploma as an architectural technician. But he struggled to find a permanent job. By this time, he’d moved into the Andries Olivier Quadriplegic Centre in Durbanville, where he still lives. After seeing disabled artists at the centre painting with their feet and mouths, and needing an outlet to express himself, he turned to art. Brenton successfully applied to the Association of Mouth and Foot Painters for a bursary to study art and has been a part of the association ever since.
Learning to paint with his mouth was like learning to write again, he says. “I remember my very first painting – it was a simple flower that took me three months to complete. Today, depending on the size and intricacy of the painting or drawing, it takes me about a week. But it was very rewarding. It still is – every time I finish a painting, it’s very rewarding.”
He finds the challenge of painting therapeutic. “I enjoy figuring out the difficult and intricate drawings and paintings. When I’m busy with a painting, it’s soothing. Sometimes I concentrate so much I forget I have to eat.”
Brenton’s family have always been supportive of him, and his journey with art has opened doors and opportunities. He’s sold paintings and many of his works have been reproduced on calendars, mugs and cards in places as far afield as Switzerland.
Through the Mouth and Foot Association, Brenton and other artists are able to hold public demonstrations and meet the public. “That’s always rewarding,” he says, “especially because we have had people who’ve support the association for many, many years but they never see how the works gets done.”
He and his fellow artists also give motivational talks to school children, to show them what can be done despite your disability.
When he’s not painting, Brenton, who’s a registered architectural technologist, does freelance jobs for private clients. “It keeps me quite busy but I do make time for my paintings. When I see the expression on people’s faces when they know what you went through to get that painting done, it makes all the challenges and hours worth it.”
He finds inspiration in everything around him and wants to use his paintings to inspire those who are going through hard times.
“The one thing I take comfort in, is remembering that nothing stays the same. Whenever you’re down and out and in the deepest despair, it’ll pass and there’ll always be a way out. Things will always get better. That is what I’ve held onto to follow my dreams.”