Life in our Foothills January 2023 – Artist’s Life and Work Create a New Perspective
Published 1:12 pm Wednesday, January 18, 2023
Saluda Artist Oliver Spragg
You can often learn a great deal about an artist through their art, and never has that been more true than referring to the work of 23-year-old artist Oliver Spragg of Saluda, by way of New York City.
Oliver’s artwork is formed from his interests, emotions, and sensations. He creates with a style and substance unique to him. Oliver has quadriplegia, resulting from a lifelong condition that was only recently diagnosed, known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which attacks the nervous system.
He conjures his art in a pair of differing styles. He prefers a black pen and white paper, using a sling that supports his arm. He also does contemplative photography using his favorite toys, colorful backgrounds, and old-fashioned store-bought black slime. He produces his work on an easel or table placed before his 400-plus-pound electric wheelchair, which supports a miraculous mixture of machinery that allows him to breathe comfortably through a tracheotomy tube he received a few years ago. In fact, Ollie’s life is made better by several modern miracles and several miracle workers, mainly his mother, Karin Spragg.
Attitude is like art in that when it is of rare quality it is considered priceless. Ollie and Karin exhibit such an infectious positive attitude that it reminds us that knowing the origins of a piece of art can be equally as affecting as the finished piece.
Karin, an artist herself, specializes in silhouettes created with pop art colors and has a prestigious background as an art director and interior designer. She built her reputation while living in New York City and running a print shop there. However, no accolade or accomplishment can compare to her being the mother of two boys – Malcolm is a musician and actor now living in Los Angeles, and Oliver, for whom she serves as a primary caregiver and a devoted advocate.
“After spending the pandemic in a cramped 1200-square-foot Harlem apartment, we decided to move to Saluda since we’d visited here many times over the years to visit family,” Karin explains about their move from NYC to Saluda. “So when we chose to move here, we already knew it was a tight-knit, caring community.”
Karin, who grew up in Georgia and attended the University of Georgia, is more than just a cheerleader for her children. She’s an advocate for children in general. She spent time as president of the PTA where she helped special needs children and their parents attending a first-of-its-kind inclusion program at the Manhattan School for Children, which Oliver attended. She and Oliver also teamed up to shoot an awareness video that helped lead to one of the first playgrounds in NYC made for children in powered wheelchairs.
“I was captain of the cheerleading squad in high school, so if I believe in something or someone, I’m going to fight for them and cheer them on,” Karin adds.
Their home is another example of her commitment to Oliver’s comfort and care. Karin has combined her talent in interior design and knowledge gained from raising a special needs child to create a home best suited for Oliver and their service dog, Rico. The home has expansive halls, sunlit open rooms, and bathrooms convenient for the size and power of his electric chair.
Once inside their home, it doesn’t take long to see Oliver’s love and enthusiasm for art. His eyes light up when it is time to select a marker and a blank piece of paper is placed in front of him. Ollie has always drawn, but as his condition worsened over his childhood, becoming a wheelchair user at age six, it became necessary to find new ways for him to be creative. With the help of a proactive art teacher, Oliver began making his twisting and turning black-and-white drawings. To draw, he uses a support sling held by a pair of bars that allows him to lift his hand high enough to keep his pen smoothly gliding around the paper, with Karin occasionally shifting his sketch pad or flipping to a new page.
He also combined a few familiar childhood elements to create his own style of art. He took black slime known to all the fans of Nickelodeon and began to pour it over some of his favorite toys. Eventually, he began combining it with photography and brightly colored backgrounds of his choice to capture light-bending photos, each one unique due to the effect of the slime.
All his art is created from his chair, equipped with a miraculous machine that assists his breathing. Oliver spent time after a bout with pneumonia at the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Hospital, a one-of-a-kind facility designed to care for medically complex and technologically dependent children. Through the hospital, Oliver received the VOCSN machine that helps him breathe. The multi-purpose marvel was pioneered by a Boeing engineer whose father had breathing difficulties. Oliver was just the second person to receive the machine in the country, which vents oxygen to help with cough assistance, suction, and a nebulizer to make his breathing more manageable and comfortable.
“Before the VOCSN,” Karen says, “I’d have to carry two machines in a backpack and another in my hand just to go down the street to get a coffee. When the company called and asked Elizabeth Seton if they had anyone who would be a good fit for the system, we were very excited.”
One of the lessons that Karin has found in advocating for Oliver and other special needs children is, “I’ve found that lending a hand and being open leads to other connections.”
It’s evident since they arrived in Saluda, they have immediately connected with the community. Oliver’s attitude and charm are showcased in his art and every aspect of his being. They’ve planned events to share his art with the Saluda Library and Wood Berry Gallery in downtown Saluda.