Just days before she was supposed to start high school, 14-year-old Kasey Tararuj ’08 awoke with a throbbing pain in her upper back. She tried to go about her morning, but an hour later her legs started to shake, then went numb. After being rushed to the hospital and enduring surgery to remove the AVM (arteriovenous malformation) that doctors had found on her spinal cord, Tararuj returned home two-and-a-half months later as a paraplegic.
“What I had is very rare in someone so young, and it’s usually fatal,” she says now, more than a decade later. “I went back to school almost immediately—I didn’t want to miss out on anything—but it was a huge change. I was depressed for years and years.”
Tararuj turned to art as an escape. It had been her favorite subject since elementary school, but after the AVM surgery, she threw herself into it with even greater zeal. “When I’m making art, I forget about anything else that’s going on in my life,” she says. “I lose myself when I start painting or drawing or sculpting. It’s a good way to forget about all those daily challenges and annoyances.”
She also happens to have serious talent. Her work has been exhibited across the country in both solo and group shows, and her customized art toys—more on those later—have won multiple awards. “She’s a fabulous artist,” says an illustrator who goes by the name Chogrin and runs an artists’ society of which Tararuj is a member. “She’s unique and passionate, and she’s definitely got her craftsmanship down. She’s got her own voice, her own style, and for any show we put together, I’m always excited to see what she’ll come up with.”
Aside from moving her to create art in the first place, Tararuj says her disability is also a frequent theme in her drawings and paintings. For instance, a drawing titled upstairs (2005) shows a faceless girl in a wheelchair sitting at the base of a daunting set of stairs, a broken handicapped-accessible sign hanging to her right. Spinal cords are also a recurring focus, as in weightless (2006), where they form haunting white trees, or restriction (2006), in which a woman’s spine protrudes from her back and wends its way around her legs, binding them.
Those particular themes are what Chogrin says made him immediately think “modern-day Frida Kahlo”—the artist who was seriously injured in a bus accident at age 18—when he first saw Tararuj’s work. “[Like Kahlo,] Kasey paints what she feels,” he says, “and I think that’s what makes someone a great artist.”
Describing her work as “dark and surreal,” Tararuj names Tim Burton and Salvador Dali among her biggest artistic influences. She also says she’s been broadening her use of media and subject matter recently, creating pieces that “aren’t as dark and disability-oriented.” Among those lighter works are the award-winning custom Munny figures she has designed and hand-painted for toy company Kidrobot’s annual competitions. She took home two awards for them this year—one for a baby chimpanzee whose mouth is stuffed with unpeeled bananas and one for a giraffe ridden by a tiny rodent master—and two in the 2010 competition.
She says much of the inspiration for those petite creatures was drawn from her Kaotic Kritters series, which features cartoon-like paintings of dinosaurs, pets and people. “I try to be as crazy and fun as possible with those and the Munnies,” she says. “I greatly amuse myself with them.”
Looking forward, Tararuj says she hopes to continue creating and showcasing her work for as long as possible. “As long as I don’t stop, I’ll be happy,” she says. Chogrin has slightly bigger predictions: “I’m really looking forward to seeing where she is 10 years from now,” he says. “I think she’s going to be really well-known—truly an artist to be remembered.”