CHICAGO (CBS) — Antonio Davis was shot 24 years ago in one of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods. It nearly killed him. Davis overcame his damaging injuries to become a successful painter. He also found love along the way.
“I’m just creating, I’m just freeing my mind, and what comes out is my true emotions,” he said.
Through his oil paintings, Davis brings to life his “burning desire” to create.
“It’s a passion. It’s an obsession. I love it that much, and I hope it shows in the work,” Davis said.
His work includes landscapes, still lifes, and portraits; but the picture comes from a different perspective. The 43-year-old paints with his mouth.
When Davis was 19 years old, his friend shot him during a fight. He was left paralyzed from his chest down.
When he learned he was paralyzed, he thought his life was over, at least the way he had lived it.
” I didn’t know anything about people in wheelchairs,” he said. “I might have seen a person in a wheelchair, but I didn’t have a comprehension of the physical requirements of the daily living with somebody with that quality of life.”
The teenager was placed in a nursing home to learn how to adjust to his new wheelchair-bound life. It was there that he met Juanita Butler, who was visiting a relative in the same nursing home.
“I noticed him, and said, ‘Oh, my God, you’re so gorgeous. What are you doing here?’ and he says, ‘I live here,’” Butler said.
Davis said Butler was the aggressor in their romance.
“Very aggressive. Very aggressive,” he said. “She’s, like, ‘I’m gonna get you outta here,’” he said.
She did get him out of there, and a year later they got married.
“I made the best choice in the world when I said, ‘I’m getting you out of this nursing home,’” Butler said. “I found somebody who’s so special, who’s like a diamond in the rough, and now he’s shining.”
Shining through his art, something he’s always loved, but only really pursued after the incident.
“I tried art with my hands, using different devices,” he said. “For me, it worked fine. I thought that I was doin’ well, but for others, it didn’t.”
An occupational therapist suggested he try painting with his mouth. So, after some convincing, he did.
Fifteen years later, his paintings are recognized worldwide, and range in price from $5,000 to more than $80,000.
“Most don’t believe it,” Davis said. “Because the level that I have gotten to in my artistry is where they say, ‘You didn’t paint that with your mouth.’”
Davis presented a portrait of former President Barack Obama to the man himself.
“He loved it. The first response was, ‘I love that you didn’t put the gray hair in there.’ So he was humorous,” Davis said.
The artist also gives back. He volunteers his time to teach and inspire art students at Richard J. Daley College on the South Side.
“I feel like me going out, mouth painting, showing the public, the community, that you can have a tragic accident, or any tragedy that happened to you, and you could still be able to accomplish things,” Davis said.
Davis said he never asked “why me?” after he was paralyzed.
“I always dared myself to do better. Just do better, that’s it,” he said.
He said he’s also forgiven the friend who shot him.
“The main thing, I have forgave that spirit behind it,” he said.
So his own spirit within could inspire those around him.
“I just get up, and I do what I do. Win the day. Win the week. Win the month. Win the year. Win your life,” he said.
Davis said the shooting was a blessing in disguise; had he not been in the nursing home, he might not have met his wife, and if he wasn’t paralyzed, he might not have ever pursued his passion for art.