AJ Brockman — professional artist, entrepreneur, brew house proprietor, and snappy dresser — grew up on television. At age 3, in his hometown of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., he was spotted in his power chair and put on camera by someone at the local Jerry Lewis Telethon. As he says now, he was nothing more than “a cute kid in a wheelchair.” For the next 15 years, he worked on the telethon in various capacities, including a five-year stint as a goodwill ambassador, and became a local celebrity. He can go back on YouTube and see himself at ages 3, 6, 9, on up to 18. “We’ve seen his whole life documented,” enthused a local anchorman, “from toddler to teenager.”
Now, all of 27, Brockman is a full-time, largely self-supporting artist, working with the latest digital technology to produce elegant, sure-handed representational paintings. Fleeting fame with Jerry Lewis had little to do with it. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, he developed a passion for art and learned to use ever-advancing digital technology to forge his own artistic path and live life on his own terms.
With a mellifluous voice, he set out to be a broadcaster of some sort, but according to his mom and current business partner, Jo Brockman, he was introduced to art by an inspiring middle school teacher who had no interest in excusing his disability. In the beginning, he had use of his hands to manipulate a paint brush and work on canvas with acrylics. Because SMA is a progressive disorder, by the time he reached high school, his hand movement had diminished. In his own bio, he describes what happened next:
“While registering for classes in high school … I came across a brand new elective course called commercial art technology
As his art days were beginning, his telethon days were ending. Asked about the experience now, he says, “I always considered myself to be very comfortable in front of a camera and at one point wanted to pursue broadcasting as a career, so my involvement with the telethon was a bit opportunistic.” He loved the MDA Summer Camp most of all, and at 15 he even hosted the local telecast — a Jerry in training? No, it was some local firefighters, not Jerry, who drew him to the event. “At the end of the day,” he says, “Jerry Lewis did a tremendous job in raising awareness and funds. Whether it was patronizing or not, there is no such thing as bad publicity.”
Jo Brockman says that AJ has always been a risk taker. “He doesn’t see himself as disabled at all,” she says. “A perfect analogy was when he announced he wanted to play hockey in school. ‘How are you going to do that?’ I asked. ‘I can do it, Mom,’ he replied. ‘I can be the goalie!’”
Because Jo was a nurse and had insurance — a huge factor, she says — AJ got the best health care possible, and when her insurance couldn’t cover something, others stepped up to help. His critical back-straightening operation at 12 was funded by the local Shriners. He went to the top of his class in high school and was valedictorian of his college class at the Digital Media Arts College in Boca Raton, Fla. He was on a mission. One of his college professors was later quoted as saying that “he was more ambitious than 10 of my other students put together.”
In Brockman’s words, “Dedication, hard work, and perseverance have always been super important to me.” His mantra: “The message is, 100 percent, not having an excuse … If I can have the drive, there is no reason or excuse why you can’t follow your dream and stop working the 9-to-5 job at McDonald’s you hate.”
No doubt helped by all of that MDA camera time, Brockman puts himself out there. His mother says, “You cannot not like the boy.” He was awarded the Distinguished Artist Award by his college professors. After he graduated, they invited him back to be the commencement speaker and helped spread his name around as he searched for work. He landed a job working for Vision Haus, a commercial design studio turning out artful brochures and ad campaigns. And he lived and prospered happily ever after? No, after three years, he quit.
Into the Unknown
He didn’t like doing work on demand and made a huge and potentially disastrous leap from commercial art to fine art. You can count the number of successful fine artists in America on two hands and one foot, and you can count the number of successful artists with a disability on two or three fingers, or in Brockman’s case, one finger and a joystick. The art racket is hard. Damn hard. In addition to having to make art that people might want to buy, he says, “you have to learn to be a great business person and marketer because that is half the battle in the art world. It’s more about how well you get your name out there and treat your work like an actual business, not a hobby.”
Brockman set out to do just that. His mother sold all of her gold belongings to help finance his new dream. His work certainly seemed marketable — portraits, oceanscapes and dogs are prevalent in his portfolio. As the technology constantly improved, his ability to use visual apps like Corel Painter 10 and Adobe Photoshop expanded his aesthetic tool bag. But the tech was just the vehicle. It’s all in the eye. Technology without talent, dedication, drive and vision is like you and me making stick figures on our 11-inch MacBook Air.
Describing art, including Brockman’s, is tricky. It’s much like describing music, or as artist/actor Martin Mull once quipped, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Brockman’s art shop is called Single Handed Studio. You can go to his website, singlehandedstudio.com, to see his work and a video demonstration of his technique. A fellow South Florida artist, Craig McInnis, sums up Brockman’s style like this:
“What I love about AJ’s work is, besides the fact that it is created with top-notch skill, regardless of his disability, is the warmth and magic that it projects … the use of color, the pallet choices, the balance, and of course the passion.”
McInnis also points out that Brockman is compassionate, funny and cuts a dandy-esque figure. “He can always be found with a cool hat, his curly mustache, funky shoes, and cutting edge tattoos.”
But back to the art biz. To do in-person sales at an outdoor, weekend art fair or the like, Brockman had to get somewhere at four in the morning, set up, hawk his wares all day, and hope to make enough to cover his expenses with a little profit left over. Being on the road like that is a drag for anyone, but for someone with his condition, it’s also a potential health risk.
Established art galleries are even worse. Assuming you find a reputable one to exhibit your work, they will demand an onerous commission of anywhere from 25 to 60 percent, before you subtract your own expenses — transferring images from computer programs to wall art, framing, delivering and promoting. The art dealers always walk away with a healthy profit. You don’t. Ever enterprising, Brockman kept looking around for a way to promote his name and his work.
Brush with Fame and a New Venture
In 2012, President Obama was in South Florida campaigning for his second term as president. Brockman traveled to a campaign stop and managed to shake his hand and present him with a painting. The painting, created from a photograph, featured the entire first family, including Bo the dog. President Obama was blown away. He handed the painting to an aide and told Brockman it would fly back with him in Air Force One and find a home in the White House family quarters. That sounded exactly like what a president would say and never do.
Later, a news photographer grabbed a shot of one of Obama’s assistants carrying the large Brockman painting onto Air Force One. The portrait was fully visible and the photo was soon in newspapers all over the country. If that wasn’t enough of a thrill, the same photo was later selected for The New York Times’ coveted collection, “2012: The Year in Pictures.” Brockman’s work was immortalized.
This made him proud, but not an overnight art world phenom. He still faced the same barriers as every other young artist. He had a brainstorm. Since he and other local artists needed a place to exhibit and sell their art, and he had a condition that would progressively limit what he could do, why not start a coffee/beer emporium of sorts that is both a permanent revolving art gallery and a great place to hang out? As another wit once pronounced: “The business of art is the art of business.” You could put that little dictum on Brockman’s tombstone.
Again with the help of AJ’s tireless mother, Jo, and a timely investment from a generous stepbrother in Colorado, the Brewhouse Gallery was born. Within a year of its opening in May 2014, the Lake Park, Fla., destination had taken off. According to Jo, The Brewhouse has expanded from a venue of 1,000 square feet to one of 4,000 square feet, enough space to fill a calendar of eclectic events. During the day, the draw is soy milk lattes and art gazing. At night, the lights dim for beer and musical performances, poetry readings, or board game or trivia night. Full-time art gallery aside, The Brewhouse is a gathering place for every other fun-loving hipster from Palm Bay to Fort Lauderdale.
AJ is the star and the dreamer here, but his mom, Jo, a single mother and nurse, is the rock. She is his single caregiver, which is wonderful in itself, but invites its own set of thorny interpersonal problems. As Jo says, “What 27 year old wants to spend all of their time with their mom?” Conversely, what mom would want to do the same with her precocious artist/entrepreneur son? Jo is also the managing partner of The Brewhouse, the person who orders up the kegs and pays the bills. Hard-nosed capitalist by day, generous caregiver by night. All said, she appears to be as indefatigable as her talented son. As they both have a major stake in the place, her final word on the Brewhouse is: “I’m going to franchise this thing.”
Because SMA is progressive, Brock-man is forever faced with having to adapt his work, and his life, to a changing body. What will he do when he has zero movement in his arms and fingers? “If it happens, it happens. I’ll deal with it and move on … I’ll figure out something I can do with my eyes, or maybe the technology will have progressed so much that I can just talk into the computer” — and tell it how to draw or paint.
There is no formula for a life like AJ Brockman’s, but if you tried to create one, it would certainly require one or all of these elements: perseverance, a mom for the ages, love of risk-taking, and the ability to use everything you can get your hands on — even a voice-activated computer that can paint like Picasso — in the quest for personal fulfillment. If you want further illumination, I suggest that you take a trip down South, drop by the Brewhouse Gallery in Lake Park, Fla. — open 12 p.m. to 12 a.m., Tuesday through Sunday — and bend the ear of the resident artist in the wheelchair.