True Colors

Matthew Kaopio Jr.’s paintings are as bright and vibrant as his personality. Despite a tragic accident 20 years ago that left him paralyzed, adversity hasn’t stopped Kaopio from finding beauty in the world.

“I could paint all day,” he admits with a smile.

Learning that he still could be artistic — a hobby he loved prior to his accident — helped him through the difficult times.

“When I became paralyzed, I was so depressed because a lot of the things I liked to do I couldn’t do anymore. But when I found out I could still paint with my mouth, that encouraged me to push myself and see what else I could do,” he explains.

In 1994, Kaopio was just 22 years old and a senior at University of Hawaii at Hilo studying Hawaiian language when he was injured in a swimming incident at Waipahee Falls.

“Everything came to a stop,” he says. “When you’re young, you think you’re bulletproof.”

In the blink of an eye, Kaopio was forced to live the rest of his life with severely limited mobility.

“It was tough at first,” he says.

He understandably fell into a deep depression. However, what helped him move past that was his artwork.

“I could see life is livable, even though it’s not perfect,” he explains.

He began to see a light at the end of the tunnel while taking an art therapy class at a rehabilitation center on Oahu. He was taught how to paint with his mouth by Gordon Sasaki, who now is a well-known artist in New York City. However, Kaopio admits there was a period of tremendous trial and error, and it wasn’t until 1997 that he created his first successful image of Maui roping the sun.

“That encouraged me to keep trying,” he says.

His success inspired him so much he decided to return to college to finish his degree. He even went on to earn his master’s in Pacific Islands studies from UH Manoa. The Kauai native, who grew up in Kapaa and graduated from Kamehameha Schools, didn’t stop there. In 2003, he had his first book published, Hawaiian Family Legends. Kaopio began writing while bedridden and unable to paint. He could still access his computer, talk into a microphone and have it type the words for him, and found enjoyment in expressing himself through another medium.

“Writing is painting using words,” he says.

Since then, Kaopio, who is of Hawaiian ancestry, has penned other published books — Written in the Sky, Hawaiian Family Album and Up Among the Stars — and he plans to write even more.

“Whatever happens, I’m just thankful for it,” he says.

He also is thankful for the recent opportunity to move back home to Kauai. Since last year, he has lived at Kauai Care Center in Waimea, where his paintings are displayed prominently and celebrated, adding pops of vibrant color to the walls.

“I just love being here,” says Kaopio, who is glad to be near friends and family again.

He still paints with acrylic on canvas as much as he can, using pictures that he finds or is given. Kaopio’s technique is to mix paint colors to match the pictures in order to replicate the scene with as much accuracy as possible.

“I like the challenge of painting what I observe and what I see,” he explains. “A lot of times it teaches me to see things differently than I normally would.”

Painting has taught him not only to appreciate life, but also to not accept things at face value “and really see the world in a different way.”

Expressing his creativity also has taught him how to move forward, no matter what the circumstances.

“Even though it seems like your situation is really bad and there’s no hope, things always could be worse,” he says.

Kaopio is a bright, refreshing beacon of light.

“You never know if you just try your best what you can accomplish,” he says. “Just start, push yourself, try your best and you never know. Maybe you’ll find yourself successful at something you didn’t expect. Don’t give up.”