Huang Guofu was playing outside with his friends when he was four. It was rural China. 1975. He grabbed onto a wire that was dangling nearby — and had the shock of his life.
His little hands were burned to the wire as he was electrocuted. His young friends stood by. Watching him become lifeless. It was a shock that should have killed him.
His hands were unrecognizable. Young Huang had to have both of his arms cut off at the shoulder.
But toddlers are resilient. Anr Huang had to grow up being extra resilient. He had to learn to do everything with his feet, from buttoning his shirt to feeding himself.
And he did. Step by step by step.
Growing up, he loved the scenery. Especially while walking the country roads of China. He loved the landscape. And he wanted to recreate it somehow.
He was careful to take a mental picture of how things looked.
He would go home and sit around flipping through comic books with his feet — admiring the work of the artists.
One day, he had the inclination to try to draw. He already knew how to write using his feet. So he thought drawing might not be so hard. He started recreating the comic strips. And he was pretty good at it.
When he reached his pre-teen years, his love for art started to overtake him.
It became an obsession.
He moved from drawing to painting. He tried to recreate landscapes, but they never really turned out the way he saw them in his head.
Night after night, Huang would stay up obsessing over getting the pictures just right.
But there was still nothing elegant about his paintings. They were elementary at best and Huang knew that.
But he kept plugging away. Painting every day. Slowly getting better.
At the same time, his father was slowly dying.
He had been diagnosed with cancer and needed emergency medical care and treatment that his family could not afford.
Huang was eighteen and decided that he needed to step up and help his family. The only skill he had was painting but he was far from being a professional.
That didn’t stop him from trying, though.
Even though he knew there were better painters than him, Huang managed to pack up his paintings and travel from town to town — setting up shop on city streets to sell his paintings.
He was a spectacle. He would paint pictures right there on the street and passersby would usually purchase his paintings.
Huang knew they weren’t buying the pictures because they were good.
They were buying them because they felt sorry for him.
Huang didn’t care too much about the sympathy sales he was making — because it was helping to pay for his father’s care.
He never lost that drive inside himself to become a better painter. He was willing to try anything. Learn anything.
One day, he decided to try painting with his mouth. And he found that he instantly had more control over the brush. And he was closer to the painting.
He worked hard on perfecting his paint-by-mouth method — and quickly his paintings sprang to life.
And then something else happened. Something magical.
Huang’s paintings became a treasure among the Chinese people and art lovers worldwide. They were beautiful. And original. And full of life.
When a flood devastated Hu Nan in 1993, Huang was the first of many to offer his help. Huang took to the streets to sell his art and to paint for passersby.
He worked for a week straight — traveling and selling his art the same way he did when he was a young teenager.
The difference now was, instead of getting sympathy sales, people were huddled in a crowd trying to get their hands on a Huang Guofu original. He made 6000 RMB (or the equivalent of $920) and he donated every penny of it to help the flood victims.
His art was now a collectible. In demand across the globe.
Huang is not a billionaire. Huang is not a millionaire. He works a modest job as a museum curator.
The money he made, he surely could have used for himself. But despite his physical limitations, Huang knew that there were others at that moment who had it worse than he did.
Despite his personal tragedy he created art.
No matter how bad life gets, you always have the choice of your response. You have the option of creating art from the ashes of your disaster.
“YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES DON’T DEFINE YOU. YOUR REACTION TO WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU IS WHAT DEFINES YOU. ”
Take a few seconds the next time you think your world is falling apart and look around. Look around at some people who have it worse than you.
It doesn’t have to be the guy in the wheelchair on the side of the road with one leg and a coffee cup begging for money.
That magic might be even closer to home.
Chances are, the people right around you are going through something that you can’t even imagine.
Remind yourself that you are lucky. Not just to be alive, but to be living the exact life you have.
It’s not always easy to be optimistic. Especially when you feel all alone. And broken. There isn’t anything you can’t get through.
Huang says, “when life closes one door to you, it must have opened another at the same time.”
What art are you creating?