Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Kevin Slater - Amazing Grace

I never met Kevin Slater, but he was a good friend, and a huge inspiration to me and many others. Kevin was left a quadriplegic after suffering a spinal cord injury during a wrestling match in high school. He struggled through a tough period when he almost gave up. But he triumphed, and resolved to live life as fully as he could.

Kevin became an artist -- a "mouth painter." I have seen many physically handicapped artists who paint this way, but Kevin was different: he painted in watercolor. The vast majority of mouth painters work in oil, as it's too difficult to control a wet medium. I don't know how he did it. And he was really good. I tried to paint watercolor holding the brush in my mouth to see whats it's like, and it was impossible.

In 2004 we crossed paths on an art website where he was known as "Strider." Pretty soon we became friends, and I used to call him at his house in Indiana to talk about painting, music, and anything else that came to mind. I cherished those conversations, and always came away from them revitalized. He was into guitar music, and I sent him a CD of mine.

In 2007 he was approached by a company that offered to buy his paintings. Kevin would have an income, and part of the proceeds would go to a foundation that supports people in his situation. He was really excited about it, and so was I. Unfortunately, just as this was happening, he was afflicted with a serious lung ailment and ended up in the hospital. The next couple of months were a roller coaster of procedures, gains, setbacks, emotions, and ultimately, heartbreak. When I called him in his hospital room, he couldn't speak, only listen. It was my intention to travel to Elkhart to visit him, as some other friends did. Before I could do so, Kevin died on July 17.

I drove out there a few days later to play at the funeral, and to meet Kevin's family. The church was in North Manchester, not far from the little town where Kevin grew up, Sidney. He was born in Wabash. I sort of wanted to play The Wabash Cannonball, one of my favorite American songs. I ended up playing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as they brought him into the church, and Amazing Grace when they took him out. I'm not a religious person, but I love a lot of the hymns. Knowing the kind of music Kevin liked, I took a chance. Amazing Grace starts out as a reverie, but about half way through I turned it into a testifyin' footstomper. Using a looping device (very dangerous in a live situation, especially at a funeral!) I then put down a rhythm track, bass line, and started the sermon. Listening to it now I can still hear at which bar I glanced down from the balcony to see if the priest was going to cut the power. He was stunned, no doubt about it, but everyone in that place was moving to the music. Kevin's family and friends told me it's exactly what he would have wanted.

He was buried in a small cemetery next to an old church out in the middle of the country. In a pine box. At the graveside his brothers, father, friends and I shared cigars and a few shots of Jack Daniels. A nod to Kevin. You'll see them all in the photos, along with his mom, wife Pam, his beautiful nieces, close friend Sandra, the loyal young Carly who lived across the street and assisted in his studio. You'll see the studio, the brushes with the telltale bite marks, the palette. Some of the photos are difficult for me to look at, but I felt they are appropriate. I believe his family would agree. People live, people die, and we go on. If Amazing Grace was written for anyone, it was written for Kevin Slater. I loved the guy.

Kevin Slater art on Zazzle.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the loving tribute of Kevin. I am one of his many cousins. I grew up all my life with him and as adults I started driving him to work and then home again. We grew really close over those few years. He is truely missed. Angie Hendrickson

Jean Burman said...

The sight of his empty wheelchair... how does such a bright light go out? I don't know. But you did such a good thing. Your voice sounds amazing. Your music such a gift. Thanks Nick.

RH Carpenter said...

What a great tribute. I met "Strider" from the online group and was more than amazed at his paintings - better than a lot of us with 10 fingers working! I imagine he was dancin' to that upbeat Amazing Grace you created for him, Nick :)

Nick said...

Angie - I don't know if you and I met at the service, but I sure felt privileged to meet Kevin's family, and was touched by their gratitude. They didn't know me, and of course didn't know what to expect. But they all told me Kevin would have approved, and I'm convinced he was somehow there (and made sure the equipment didn't glitch!).

Jean - exactly, he was a bright light, and a superman overcoming unimaginable odds and difficulties.

Rhonda - ah, you remember him! Amazing how he painted. I gave it a try, and not only was it just ridiculously impossible, it was also painful. He was no sissy! One of these days I'm going to do a painting from a photo his niece Kim (the girl hugging him in the pic) took in the attic of the old family store. Kevin loved it and had been saving it for a special painting, but sadly never got to do it. His wife gave me one of his brushes, and I'll use that.

Patty said...

Lovely tribute, Nick. Has it really been almost 5 years? Amazing indeed!

June Conte- Pryor said...

Nick , You are so thoughtful and loving.
I guess it is in the genes.
Hugs , June

Borum said...

Hey Nick been awhile. Miss you on the other site, but understand. Not a lot of excitement there anymore. This is a very moving tribute to someone who touched many people with his art, and the simple life that he lived with courage. Where ever he is I know that he is stomping his foot just as I was doing.

Thank you for the smile.

Vanis (Borum)

VP Miller said...

What a beautiful, moving tribute. Thank you for sharing his story - it is inspirational to us all.

Tonya Vollertsen said...

Great story and tribute. I love that song but always get a lump in my throat when I hear it and couldn't possibly sing it all the way through. Your rendition has a nice feel of simplicity and spontaneity.
I have met a few mouth painters and one woman that paints with her feet as she has no arms. Very humbling when I realize how little I do with what I have! Great wake up call! Thanks!

Nick said...

Patty - I should have done this sooner, but 5 yrs does go by faster now than it used to

June - Kevin was a fan of your paintings!

Borum - the "other site" is an insult to anyone who cares about art or artists. I wonder when Kevin would have been banned, or simply quit out of disgust?! Arnold Lowrey, another great friend, got out of there recently.

VP - one of those people you feel lucky to have known

Tonya - I think it's unusual to see a mouth painter working in watercolor. I tried it and couldn't do anything. The human will is something to behold, people like Kevin remind us a person should never quit.

wayne said...

Nick, an absolutely awe-inspiring post/story!!! And an incredibly moving and compelling rendition of the timeless classic Amazing Grace! Hair raising,.. and I love the slight increased tempo change as the music progresses and the bluesy notes added in later on, ..everything in your music here adds to a respectful celebration of Kevin's life and his phenomenal accomplishments. All in all = one of the best versions of this hymn/anthem i've *ever* heard. Inspired and inspiring. Best wishes, wayne

Nick said...

Wayne - thank you very much, I'm not sure what could adequately pay tribute to that guy's spirit and determination, but I'd say music is the best we got. Nothing else packs quite the emotional punch. Or as my old friend Randy Kentfield observed, "a medium unseen and unfelt, yet ecstatically experienced." I like to think Kevin would have approved.
As always, your visits are so appreciated, querido amgio.

Pam Slater said...

I wrote a comment, Nick, but don't know if it went through. I'll check for it tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

My name is seanie slater and I was one of his nieces. This was so nice to see that he is rememberd by many people and to see how he has inspired many. uncle kevin always said "life is good" which always made me think about my own life and how much we all take for granted. I also just wanted to mention tho, that he actually passed in 2006. Miss him everyday.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for this wonderful tribute to the Best Man I have ever had the privilege of knowing and loving. My name is Whitney Yancey I was Kevin's next door neighbor and god daughter. It truly moves me how many lives he's touched and the song that went along with the tribute. Kevin always used to tell me "Don't sweat the small stuff" and he lived by this. I forever have his memory tattooed on me and in my heart.

Thank you so very much again. I can't wait to share this with my family and friends that he knew.