Images by Jonas Maon

Matthew Kaopio taps the tip of his paintbrush on the brim of a small saucer filled with water. Ripples of purple spread in the miniature basin and quickly dissolve, leaving a semi-opaque lavender pool resting on the edge of Kaopio’s easel. Different colors of acrylic paints and varying sizes of paintbrushes surround him and the piece holding his focus in the southeast corner of Kahuku Medical Center’s activity room: a nymph with auburn hair overlooking a pond where a unicorn is embraced by a blonde woman dressed in lime green as it bows down to drink from the water. Kaopio brings the brush to the canvas and with a quick cadence he shadows a boulder where the nymph can be seen lounging. She is perched on the stone as streams of white water fall into a dark pool below.

“I’m in the mood to paint something that is out of the ordinary,” Kaopio says. A couple feet outside of Kaopio’s workspace, dozens of his artwork, some mundane, others fantastical, lean against the wall, all waiting to be sold or gifted to friends: zebras grazing in the midst of a bright orange dust storm, an hourglass-shaped performer holds a microphone stand beside her, and a sun setting behind Mokoliʻi as waves crash onto the shore. “My dreams are very vivid—I have some incredibly creative dreams.”

The creation of the nymph’s deep blue pond is surprising when one considers how Kaopio controls his tool: his mouth. In 1994, Kaopio became paralyzed from the shoulders down, after breaking his neck diving from Waipahe‘e Falls on Kaua‘i. Floating in the water, unable to move, Kaopio thought he had lost the ability to enjoy the activities he loved: swimming, surfing, hiking, even singing and drawing. “From that moment on, I knew life was changed forever,” Kaopio says. “I was probably in a funk for the first three years, just not knowing what the future was going to hold.”