Tommy Hollenstein's canvas is the floor. The rubber wheels of his electric wheelchair his brush. The results are incredible. An abstract explosion of bright paint wheeled onto canvas. Colours and rhythm combine to make each piece unique.
A keen surfer and adventurer, Tommy grew up on a diet of extreme sports. Raised in California as one of five children by a Marine mother and restaurant owner father, his family life was a kind of epitome of the American dream.
Tommy enjoyed the darker side of Cali lifestyle but by 1985 he had gotten a month clean of substance abuse. He loved mountain biking and Bell Canyon was a favourite trail, a passage he knew only too well. Bell Canyon would change his life irreversibly.
Towards the end of the trail a contractor had dug a deep trench out of the end of the trail. Tommy was going too slow to jump and too fast to stop.
He suffered a catastrophic spinal injury. He has been a C4/C5 quadriplegic for almost 36 years, confined to a wheelchair with restricted movement since the age of 24.
"I remember thinking that I was not yet ready to die. I asked God to give me another chance.”
Tommy spent six months in hospital with plenty of time ponder his next move. Life could have broken him. He got out and completed his private detective exams, working for a time on missing persons cases. But it wasn't for him.
Drugs came calling again and he became both a user and dealer which ended with a FBI raid and a 40 year suspended sentence from a judge that gave him the opportunity to turn his life around. He started working out and reflecting on the life he could live.
Despite always wanting to be an artist, his art career almost didn't happen. Initially he attempted using a mouth-brush but found it to restrictive as a means of painting.
Two years after his accident Hollenstein was approached by Canine Companions with a view to placing a service dog with him. It was a placement that would change the trajectory of his life.
“Weaver was the one who gave me back my independence and gave me the confidence to move into my own apartment,”
When his labrador service dog Weaver (dogs are a constant in his life) suffered a stroke, Tommy wanted to honour him and had been already considering creating a painting with the dog's paws and his tyre tracks.
“The bond between the dog and I was just phenomenal, and as he started to get older, I really wanted to have something as a memory of him on my wall other than a photograph.”
And that was it. He could paint. The wheelchair gave him a freedom of expression that suddenly enabled him to transcend his injury and create. He built a studio and began dedicating himself to the canvas at night.
Quickly he became a fixture on the L.A art circuit, selling his distinctive prints to the likes Slash from Guns n' Roses, Joaquin Pheonix, Elton John and Ringo Starr.
His celebrity following has only increased his following and today he can work full-time as a professional artist; something that was only a childhood pipe-dream.
Often inspired by his Christian faith, Tommy's work is a testament to recovery and the potential within, regardless of limitations. Jackson Pollock and Claude Monet are cited as major influences and each painting could have up to 50 layers of tyre tracks applied to the masonite board.
“It’s like dancing as I spin back and forth and slide the tires...it’s probably the time I feel the most freedom in my chair.”
Tommy's attitude to life is infectious and his Instagram updates (@tommyhollenstein) are a daily reminder that we are not defined by what happens to us, but by how we respond.
10% of the sale price of his paintings continue to go to Canine Companions.