Turning tragedy into triumph


If you go

What: Rise Up Gallery

Where: 187 NW 27th St. CU-1, Miami

Contact: djmccauley@rutcp.org; 303-960-7810


Although he’s an artist with a gallery in Wynwood, David McCauley will tell you that his life is not just about art.

Rather, it’s about the art of living.

During Art Basel last year, visitors who flowed into Wynwood were surprised to learn that the work at his Rise Up Gallery was created by people with disabilities like himself. For McCauley, a quadriplegic, the gallery inspires people with disabilities to improve their life through art.

Last week, McCauley took his message to an art therapy workshop at Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital, his second one this year. Part of the gallery’s mission is to offer art therapy workshops, create income opportunities for people with disabilities and support research for a cure for paralysis.

“A lot of times when you have a catastrophic injury, it’s hard to get back out into life,” he told the class of more than a dozen people in wheelchairs or beds. “This is the perfect medium I see to get away from the stressors of physical therapy and life in the hospital, and kind of switch it up.”

In the light-filled room, the students focused on the blank square canvases before them, painting whatever came to mind. Some painted with their hands, others, with their mouths.

Along with current patients, most of the workshop participants were former patients, who have maintained a bond with each other and with Cathy Herring, rehabilitation coordinator at the hospital. She has played a key role in each person’s recovery.

“Switching it up,” changing a routine that no longer includes the activities that once defined an active life, is critical, McCauley said. Sitting at a table with three workshop participants, all in wheelchairs, McCauley pulled up his wheelchair to paint with the group and talked about how he came to be among them.

Four years ago, McCauley was living in Jersey City, N.J., and working as sales director for BATS U.S. Stock Exchanges in New York City. A competitive swimmer since age 6, he was also an avid snowboarder and skateboarder. On a weekend trip to East Hampton with friends, McCauley said, he dove into a pool and hit his head on the bottom, breaking his neck and damaging his spinal cord. The accident left him paralyzed from the chest down.

Now 36, McCauley said he spent four months in the hospital. He has partial use of his right hand.

“When I was in the hospital, I started attending an art therapy class and painting,” he said. “In retrospect, I look back and realize how much it did help me.”

With his company’s support, McCauley tried going back to work on a modified schedule, he said, but decided, as many people do after a spinal cord injury, that his old life no longer fit.

After friends, colleagues and family raised funds to help him, “I thought we could do this on a larger scale, and help more people than just myself.”

He launched Rise Up to Cure Paralysis, a nonprofit foundation that raises money for research and distributes Quality of Life Grants to help those struggling with the cost of care. In 2011, New Jersey First Lady Mary Pat Christie honored him as a New Jersey Hero for his dedication to helping others.

McCauley said he noticed the most successful fundraisers were art events that featured art from people with disabilities. He decided to establish the first Rise Up Gallery, in Jersey City, as the flagship for the organization.

“It’s more than just self expression. … This is also a potential source of income for people,’’ he said. “We’re not paying people’s rent on a monthly basis, but a couple of hundred bucks for medical supplies or pharmaceuticals. That’s a big deal for somebody fresh out of the hospital with a spinal cord injury.”

He had hoped one day to replicate the concept in other cities.

After a visit to Miami Beach for the winter, he decided to stay. Rise Up Gallery in Jersey City is now being run by a fellow artist who also is disabled. Weather, he said, is an important factor for people with disabilities. After his accident, preparing to go outside in winter was a production. He would roll around on his bed putting on layers of clothing. By the time he was finished, he was too tired to go out.

McCauley also saw in Miami a community that had strong roots in the arts and healthcare.

“It’s a really well-established community of people with disabilities already,” he said, noting the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, Shake-A-Leg Miami and Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital. “So I thought hey, I could be the person that brings art into the mix.”

In 2010, Miami was named one of the top 20 best cities in America for people with disabilities by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. Cities were rated based on wheelchair accessibility, access to fitness facilities and recreation, percentage of people living with disabilities who are employed and access to paratransit.

Veronica Lopez, one of the three artists sitting with McCauley, said that a year ago this May, she was enjoying motorcycle riding with a group of friends. She does not remember what happened next. Friends told her that she hit a guardrail, and her body was somehow wedged between the bike and guardrail as the bike kept going, damaging her spinal chord.

At 34, the single mother of three could no longer walk.

Travis Downing, 27, was in a head-on car crash a year ago, and spent two months at Jackson. The former football player for Tennessee State University can move his arms and hands and now lives on his own in North Miami.

“We can uplift ourselves and share those stories. How do you go to the bathroom? Do you have a girlfriend? All these things. If you can air it out with people who are in the exact same situation as you, it makes it that much easier. Anything positive you can take away from this situation is a good thing.”

Then there’s the chance to produce art that hangs in a gallery.

“It’s a big deal to come into a gallery in Wynwood and see your art hanging on the wall,” McCauley said. “It’s very empowering.”

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