“I am lucky” are words I didn’t expect to hear from LeVar Lawrence when we met a few weeks ago under the leafy canopy next to Coler Hospital.
Roosevelt Island, he says, is his “suburban” home, a calm retreat where he lives with some of his closest friends, fellow victims of gun violence who, like Lawrence, will live in wheelchairs for the rest of their lives.
His real home though, the home where his heart is and will always be, is the Walt Whitman Houses, a housing project in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The 41-year-old misses the “action” there and escapes to Brooklyn as often as he can to see his six children and to hang out with old friends.
“That’s where I was born, raised and also paralyzed; I just can’t stay away,” he says.
Drugs, guns, jail, and robberies are all part of his personal narrative. Yet, so is art. He started out drawing comics as a kid and moved on to portraiture and to spray-painting on building walls. He attended an arts high school for a short time and his mother enrolled him in classes at Pratt Institute, a school known for its undergraduate and graduate art and design programs, when he was 17 years old. But his fast life on the streets gradually took over.
“I never liked the drug-dealing, but it helped me keep up with my payments and support my family,” he says.
In 2005, Lawrence was shot in the neck, paralyzing him from the neck down and extinguishing his creative spark. “My first three years I really wanted to kill myself,” he says. “I was 28 years old and I never thought this would happen to me.”
For eight years, Lawrence lived at Goldwater Hospital at the southern end of Roosevelt Island. When it was slated to be torn down to make way for Cornell Tech in 2014, he moved to Coler Hospital, just north of the Octagon. His world shifted about three years ago when Rivercross resident and artist Jennilie Brewster entered the picture. She is the director of Open Doors, an arts education and mentoring program for Coler residents who are victims of gun violence.
Reluctant and shy, Lawrence first began to write. He says his first poem, which he describes as “just thoughts,” flowed out of him. His words surprised everyone, especially him.
Just like that, the creative spark reignited. He began publishing and performing spoken word poetry. He and other Open Door members began speaking to at-risk youth on perilous paths. Ultimately, writing opened a channel that led Lawrence on a journey back to the visual arts.
He became interested in photography and graphic arts. Now he uses digital art software to manipulate images on his phone. His phone is mounted to a support on his wheelchair near his face so he can use a stylus in his mouth.
Study Group by LaVar Lawrence.
He showed his work at Gallery RIVAA in May and does private commissions. As technology improves, Lawrence anticipates new opportunities for art-making will open up to him and he’s excited.
“When I see people interested in my work, it really makes me feel good,” he says. The process of making his work is an obsession that keeps him up at all hours and fills his days. “I have my days when I feel like shit,” he says. “I want to cry. I want to scream. I want to ram my chair into the wall. I am human. I have feelings. But I just know how to control it.” He adds, “Making the art takes my mind off things.”
The “luck” that Lawrence refers to as we sit together in the garden may have something to do with this. He can’t use his hands to make art but he found his way back to that deep, mysterious place within from which artists mine their creativity. Artists know that in this place, the possibilities are endless.
To see more of Lawrence ’s work see opendoorsnyc.org/art-gallery.