Recently, I heard about this Taiwanese artist who has become an inspiration to many people in this part of the world.
Hsieh Kun-Shan paints with his mouth, having learnt this skill after losing both his arms and a right leg to a horrendous factory accident when he was 16-years-old. He’s now 48, so that accident must have happened around 1975.
In those days, Taiwan was beginning to industrialise and it was not uncommon for people from the poor rural areas to work in the big cities from young to support their families. Hsieh was one of them.
He was working in a garment factory and helping to carry some iron rods. “The rods must have touched some overhead high-voltage cables. All of a sudden, electricity hit me. To making matters worse, I wasn’t wearing shoes and that made my whole body an electric conductor,” he recollected.
To save his life, he underwent major surgery to remove most of his right arm, his entire left arm and his right leg below the knee. Also, his right eye was severely damaged and his left foot was deformed. Later, he completely lost sight in his right eye.
“When I awoke from the surgeries, I saw my mother weeping by my bed and I thought, ‘What have I done to her?’ Losing my limbs and physical pain did not weaken me but my heart broke when I saw my mother’s tears, despair and helplessness. I was adding more sorrows to the woman who was already leading a miserable life. She had to take care of me like I was a baby again. I made up my mind then that I must make myself useful and never let her cry again.”
The next seven years at home were turbulent but Hsieh remained positive. He taught to feed himself with his right stump and he devised a long hook that could unzip his pants. “I was thinking of how to take care of myself. My body was confined but my mind was free. If I can make the best of my potential, I will have no difficulties in overcoming any obstacle,” he said.
He willed himself to write with a pencil in his mouth and found peace, hope and contentment in drawing. In his early 20s, Hsieh joined two other self-taught artists to form a studio selling oil paintings. The turning point came when Hsieh met a well-known Taiwanese oil painter, Wu Ah-Sun, at an exhibition in Taipei. Impressed by Hsieh’s eagerness to learn, Wu agreed to let him attend his classes at a university.
Hsieh has held various solo art exhibitions and his works have won accolades and awards. He is a board member of the Liechtenstein-based Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World which offers grants to some 650 such artists in 60 countries. He receives US$3,000 per month. A medium-sized oil painting sells for some US$5,000. He does volunteer work at the Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital and gives speeches to encourage others, especially Taiwanese school children and prisoners. “I stand in front of them and give them a living example of how one can stand up again after falling down,” said Hsieh.
Hardened prison inmates have been known to kowtow in deep respect after listening to him. In 2003, the Tzu-Chi organisation made a 30-episode TV series about him, in which he played himself as an adult.
Hsieh’s philosophy in life is simple: “To me, there are no difficulties in life. There are only challenges to meet and problems to solve. I always think about the bright side, appreciating what is left in me rather than wallowing in regret over what has been taken away. Do you know anyone who is more unfortunate than me? But do you also know anyone who is as lucky as me? I was given so much help and kindness in my life by people I didn’t know. Now, I only want to give back whatever I can.”
Recommended further reading from the Tzu Chi homepage.