Christopher Kuster is like other local artists in many ways.
He gets his inspiration from nature and he likes to paint the beauty from the Gulf Coast of Florida. His watercolor, acrylic and oil paintings feature birds, flowers and local scenery.
But his technique is different.
He paints with his mouth.
Kuster, 39, is a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down, the result of a 1992 diving accident at Fred Howard Park.
"Painting gives me a release from my physical bonds," he said. "I get so engrossed in the painting that I forget I'm in a wheelchair."
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Kuster was active growing up in Pinellas County, and liked nothing better than playing on the beach with his friends and swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. But that all changed one hot July day.
After running along the beach and throwing himself into the water, Kuster couldn't move his arms and legs. He had no sensation from the chest down.
A friend rescued him from drowning.
It was never determined what caused his injury, but authorities think it was the force of him hitting the water, not an obstacle.
"It was one of those freak accidents," Kuster said, "and I had to learn how to start life in a different way."
After the accident, Kuster looked for a new focus in his life. But it wasn't until 2001 that he found his true passion when his sister-in-law bought him a set of paints and some brushes.
"She had seen me sketching with a pencil and thought painting might give me something to do," he said.
He never had any training as an artist, but he taught himself how to paint by holding the paintbrush between his teeth.
"My first paintings were very elementary," he said. "I think more paint landed on me than on the canvas."
Hours of persistence paid off, however, and now his works sell for as much as several hundred dollars each.
Kuster spends several hours each day painting, and he loves it.
He frequently sets up his table and supplies at the Sponge Docks or at local beaches and parks and usually attracts a crowd. He loves to interact with the people he meets.
"I've learned to talk while holding a paint brush in my mouth," he said.
Kuster lives along the Pinellas Trail and has a live-in caregiver who helps him with life's basics. He has limited mobility in his upper arms, but can't grasp or hold anything.
When he is not painting, he uses his motorized wheelchair to get around town. He says he is well known in the community and gets lots of help and support from his friends and other Tarpon Springs residents.
Sheila Keane, 49, met Kuster when the two were neighbors. Even though she moved, she has stayed close to him.
She frequently helps him set up his art equipment at the Sponge Docks. She said Kuster has a remarkable enthusiasm and ability to accomplish anything he wants in spite of his physical limitations.
"He has this indomitable spirit," she said. "He's always thinking about coming up with new ways to get past his disabilities."
Keane owns a few of Kuster's paintings and said her favorite works are his oil paintings.
"His oils are so realistic you would swear you were looking at the real thing," she said.
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After selling his paintings on his Web site and at several small shows, he is now ready to start showing his work at larger venues.
"I'm ready to take it to the next level, I think," he said.
He is also trying to become a member of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, an international group that supports artists who paint using their mouths or feet.
Despite his disability, Kuster has a positive outlook on life and chooses to focus more on what he has than what he doesn't have.
"Everybody gets dealt a hand of cards," he said. "Some of us get dealt twos and threes and we just have to put on our poker faces and move on with life."