A freedom ride through vibrant color

Tommy Hollenstein took up painting again after an accident left him paralyzed. At left, a sample of his work in the exhibit "Wheels of Perception" opening Saturday at the Bernard Gallery in Calabasas.

Artist Tommy Hollenstein uses his “wheels” for what is described as “action painting.”

By Judi Uthus/ Special to The Malibu Times

Surfers who date back to the ’70s might recall artist Tommy Hollenstein’s first exhibit inside his VW bus at County Line. It was a wood-lathe mural of an ocean sunset done on the van’s interior panel. It could always be found parked at The Line Shack, a hamburger joint across from Neptune’s Net that Hollenstein managed when not surfing. One of his duties was giving radio station’s KMET 7 a.m. surf report at the popular break he would paddle into after work with buddies such as Jefferson Wagner of Zuma Jay’s surf shop and John La Lanne, son of famed fitness guru Jack La Lanne.

Hollenstein is exhibiting again, but this time his work doesn’t sit on wheels, it’s done with wheels. His wheelchair.

In 1985, the 24-year-old Hollenstein had a mountain biking accident that left him paralyzed. Debuting on July 16 at the Bernard Gallery in Calabasas is his acrylic painting series, “Wheels of Perception.” The former competitor in the Western Surfing Association now uses his wheelchair for a fluid freedom ride through vibrant color and motion. His abstract yet accessible style has been compared to painter Jackson Pollock, liberating the confinement of the canvas through what is described as “action painting.” As did Pollock, Hollenstein works above the canvas, a style associated with unleashing a more direct expression through unconscious moods of the artist.

“My dog Weaver got me back into art,” said Hollenstein, who once won the Kraft Culinary Challenge in garde mange, carving a 50-pound banana squash into Noah’s Arc.

After his accident, Hollenstein had stopped doing any type of art while he learned to adapt to his new life. He was given Weaver to be his canine companion to help him gain back his independence. At the end of Weaver’s life and a devoted relationship lasting 13-1/2 years, Hollenstein needed a way to permanently imprint their bond. He returned to art, a big part of his life before the accident. He had painted theater sets and class murals all through elementary and junior high school, and later had instruction from Disney artist Joe Rhode.

“Many quadriplegics take up mouth painting, but that was not appealing to me,” Hollenstein said. “I needed another way.”

He thought about all the travels he and Weaver had shared physically, spiritually and mentally. The bond, he decided, would be expressed in a painting with his companion’s paws and his wheelchair to represent disabled man and his best friend. The Wheels of Perception series includes the first painting with Weaver plus other inspirations found in the Southern Californian culture and landscape. For Hollenstein, it captures the road that led him to reinvent himself-a journey that is sometimes melancholy, sometimes jubilant, but always inspirational.

Hollenstein has helped others who have had to share a similar journey. In 1996 he read how high school senior surf amateur Jesse Billauer broke his neck at Westward Beach, leaving him paralyzed. He visited him at Northridge Hospital and they became friends. Hollenstein loaned Billauer his custom tuxedo with modifications to be strapped in a wheelchair and his attendant and Chevy truck so the graduating quadriplegic could attend his high school prom. Over the years the two have remained friends and Hollenstein participates in Billauer’s Life Rolls On Foundation program, They Will Surf Again.

The opening night reception for Wheels of Perception is July 16 from 6 p.m.- 8 p.m., and a portion of the proceeds will benefit Canine Companions for Independence, the organization that trains dogs like Weaver to provide assistance to people with developmental or physical disabilities. The exhibit continues through Aug. 16. Bernard Gallery is located at 23538 Calabasas Road.