Chess and Art:
By Jim Mitch
Except in cases involving Spock or prayer, observable movements are required for people to communicate. This can be as subtle as a raised eyebrow or a whispered word, but there must be some muscle movement for one person to convey a thought or feeling to another. Note that great actors are distinguished from the rest by their extraordinary control of facial expressions, gestures, and of the movements needed to create special inflections and pronunciations when talking.
It follows that an impairment that reduces a person's ability to move the muscles of the face and hands should, among other things, diminish the person's potential for self-expression. While this is generally true, the fellow pictured on the right taught himself some remarkable ways to express himself to the world, despite having severely limited muscle control.
Born with severe spastic cerebral palsy, Paul Smith must rely on others to feed, dress, and bathe him. His speech is difficult to understand, even for those who know him well. Movements of his hands are jerky to the point that when he plays chess he can't move a piece by himself without risking knocking several others over. And yet Paul has excelled not only as a chess player, but also as an artist -- an artist that can hold neither a pencil nor a paintbrush.
Here's a scanned image from a low-resolution copy of one of Paul's pictures. (Although I couldn't locate the original, I chose this picture to introduce first because of the chess theme.) Paul has created hundreds of similar pictures, all better than what 99% of the general population could produce in any medium -- and some better than what 99.99% could do!
In case you'd like to figure out for yourself the mystery behind Mr. Smith's artistic technique, you're invited to peruse more samples of his work before looking past this paragraph. Faces are notoriously hard to portray successfully, so as a test of Paul's work here are two of his portraits of famous people. The secret behind his technique may be more readily detectable in his picture of his pet squirrel and one of his landscapes. The plot gets even more complicated when samples of his work with color enter the story.
This was Paul's situation as a child: he had terrible control of the speed
and strength of his muscles. His body simply was incapable of making the
precise movements most of us take for granted. Eating with a fork wasn't an
option; it was too dangerous because he might have poked himself in the eye.
Pointing to chess pieces and squares, then letting someone else make the
move, was necessary.
But the human drive to be understood by others is extremely powerful, and led Paul to discover that one of the most advanced communication technologies of the time, the typewriter, compensated wonderfully for his lack of dexterity. Because severe impairments kept children out of school back then, Paul never learned to read or write -- but he found another way to use a typewriter. He used one to paint pictures.
Paul could take as long as necessary to press a key. It was OK if he struck a key with extra force or if he held it down longer than necessary. If he wanted to place an asterisk on a piece of paper, that's what the typewriter would produce regardless of how poorly coordinated his movements were. Paul didn't care that it might take him weeks or months to make a recognizable picture out of asterisks and other symbols. He was willing to put in the time and, using both hands for each keystroke then ever-so-slowly repositioning the paper before the next stroke, he gradually developed a distinct, beautiful way of creating art.
The distinctive marks of a typewriter are most readily seen in Paul's early works, such as a picture he made of his bedroom. (Notice what item is featured in the focus point of the image!) As he developed his style, he began to use colored ribbons. At first, only black and red ribbons were available, and his use of these two colors is demonstrated in this picture of a brick house.
While experimenting with colored ribbons, Paul was also developing a clever way of pressing directly on the ribbon with his thumb to create a smudging effect. His mastery of the typewriter eventually reached a point that it took careful inspection to see that his pictures contained thousands of discreet marks. Paul's rendition of the Mona Lisa is an example from the peak of his artistic development and is a true masterpiece.
The visual planning needed to execute Paul's art style is incredible, and his advanced skills in this area are apparent in his chess games. In most graphic arts, the artist builds an image incrementally, either erasing or covering parts of the picture as he or she progresses. Paul's technique requires that the entire picture must be planned before he starts. (For example, on the teddy bear shown above, Paul would have needed to make allowances from the beginning for the white space that creates the scarf.) It is no surprise that his chess games include extended combinations, and that he clearly recognizes and exploits tactical opportunities based on a huge internal library of critical patterns.
This would be a logical place in the story to show one of Paul's chess games. From what I've heard, Paul was a prolific player for many years, playing over-the-board games with visitors and often having several correspondence games going on at once. Unfortunately, I've not yet located a record of any of these games. As a nursing home resident, Paul's accumulation of worldly goods fits in several drawers and any records of past chess games didn't make the cut. Though he still plays every chance he gets, at age 81 his health doesn't allow him to create art or chess at the level he once did.
Paul grew up in Philadelphia during the 1920s-1940s, then moved with his parents to the Hollywood, Florida area. Since 1967, he has been a resident of Rose Haven Nursing Center in Roseburg, Oregon. If by chance any readers happen to have run across any of his games or artwork, an e-mail would be most appreciated!
Chess provided a vehicle early in Paul's life to be a part of the gang. It was a ticket to membership in many social circles, and a valuable source for recreation and wholesome competition. It offered Paul a form of communication and self-expression. For his part, Paul has been an outstanding ambassador for chess. He is an absolute gentleman with a delightful sense of humor, and the most humble and gracious person one could ever hope to meet.
For more information about Paul and about a foundation being
formed to preserve, promote, and extend his work, please visit
Sign up for the Paul Smith Newsletter, which...
All artwork copyrighted © 2002 by Paul J. Smith