Faces of the Pack: Meet artist and advocate Connor Fogal

Painting with a brush attached to an adaptive headset, University faculty member creates a 35-foot-wide mural for the campus community

Faces of the Pack: Meet artist and advocate Connor Fogal

Painting with a brush attached to an adaptive headset, University faculty member creates a 35-foot-wide mural for the campus community

Enter the Front Door Gallery in the Church of Fine Arts, and you will be greeted by an expansive mural of Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay at sunset. The size and detail of the 35-foot-wide by 11-foot-tall artwork are incredible, and what is even more amazing is how the painting was created. The work was painted by a University of Nevada, Reno faculty member using a paintbrush attached to an adaptive headset.

onnor Fogal smiles for the camera while he wears an adaptive headset with a paintbrush attached to it at the middle of his face. Behind him is a cart with paints and a mural on a wall, which pictures Emerald Bay at sunset.
Connor Fogal, who was born with cerebral palsy, is both an artist and an advocate for people with disabilities.

The artist is Connor Fogal, an assistive technology ambassador and digital media producer/editor within the College of Education & Human Development’s Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities (NCED). Fogal was born with cerebral palsy and has dedicated his life to art and advocacy for people with disabilities. His love for painting began in the early 2000s when he attended the Marvin Picollo School in Reno, Nevada.

“In the fourth grade, we were in art class, and my mom taped a paintbrush to a headset used to type on a keyboard, and that was it,” Fogal said, adding that his inspiration to paint came from seeing one of his teacher’s paintings.

In the sixth grade, he worked with his teacher to learn the art form. “All I did was mix colors for a whole six months. She kept challenging me with exact colors to match.”

“I took five or seven of my paintings, and I paid my way through college with my art.”

Fogal’s first painting was a reproduction of Claude Monet’s “Impression Sunrise. He also reproduced paintings from Vincent van Gogh and Edward Hooper and then moved into creating his own works. He continued to paint until he left the Picollo School at age 18 and explored art as a profession for several years after that.

In 2014, Fogal received a call letting him know he had been accepted into the University’s Path to Independence (P2I) program. The two-year program offers inclusive post-secondary education to students with intellectual disabilities.

“I took five or seven of my paintings, and I paid my way through college with my art,” he said. “I was able to do that the whole way through, and I tell people now I will have a great story to tell my kids.”

During the program, Fogal studied digital photography, visual foundation, videography and digital media. He graduated in 2016 and resumed his work as an artist while picking up other jobs to pay his bills. In 2019, an opportunity arose for him to return to the University.

“My coworker came up to me and said, ‘Do you like to edit videos?’ And I said, ‘I love editing videos. That’s my dream,’” Fogal said.

Connor Fogal
Fogal's work on campus supports access to assistive technology for students with disabilities.

He started on a letter of appointment contract and eventually became a full-time faculty member within NCED. In addition to his duties producing and editing training videos, he received a new position last year, ordering equipment for students in need of assistive technology (AT) on campus. Much like returning to campus after graduation, his role as an AT ambassador reminded him of where he started.

“When I was in school, I was the student that asked for the AT equipment, so really that’s another full-circle thing now that I have been on both ends,” he said. “It’s really cool how the world works that way.”

And full-circle moments also seem to be the theme of Fogal’s work as a mural artist. His opportunity to paint “Emerald Bay” was facilitated by Kari Barber, a University faculty member who he took a class from during his time in the P2I program.

“Connor was a student in one of my production classes when I first started teaching. It was his first college class, and it was an audio production class,” Barber, the interim associate dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism and an associate professor of electronic media, said. “I was so impressed with his goals (both artistic and athletic) and how he fought to achieve them.”

“We were talking about my documentary, and I told her it would be so cool to get me working on a mural on the film.”

Barber, who is a documentarian, followed Fogal’s art and life closely after he left her class, seeing him on the ski slopes and browsing his social media. Her interest in his story eventually led to conversations about working together on a documentary.

“He’s got such a commitment to giving back – from talking at schools about bullying to lobbying for a wheelchair repair bill,” she said. “When I asked him about the documentary, he was 100% on board. He’s a media producer himself, so he gets it.”

They planned for the film to highlight his achievements in skiing and weightlifting as well as his work in advocacy and art. Fogal then suggested painting a mural during the film.  

“We were talking about my documentary, and I told her it would be so cool to get me working on a mural on the film,” Fogal said. “A couple of weeks later, I get this text [from Kari] saying, ‘Connor, I have this friend, and I talked about you with her…and she said she’d be willing to give you a wall to do an art piece.’”

Connor Fogal paints a section of his mural using an adaptive headset with a brush attached to it.
Fogal worked for five months on his mural, leading up to a public unveiling on May 31.

Barber had reached out to Stephanie Gibson, the director of the Lilley Museum of Art within the School of the Arts in the College of Liberal Arts, for advice to help Fogal secure a mural location, and Gibson said she would love to have him paint a mural in the Church Fine Arts Building. The project was organized by the Lilley, with support from the Marshall R Matley Foundation.

“I had just started in my position as director of the Lilley at [the University] and jumped at the chance to collaborate,” Gibson said.  

With the spot secured, Fogal was ready to paint. He chose an image of Emerald Bay, which he had painted before in smaller formats.  

“When I saw the wall, I thought, ‘I’ve got the perfect picture for that,’” he said. “The [inspiration] picture is a panorama so it wouldn’t get distorted or funky looking [on the long wall].”

For five months, Fogal painted the mural using a brush on an adaptive headset. The staff at the Lilley provided him with a riser, allowing him to reach the highest points of the artwork.

“It’s been incredible for our community to watch Connor paint this past year,” Gibson said. “The Lilley Museum works with artists on and off campus, with a commitment to showcasing art that has relevance and meaning to our community.” 

Fogal painted the majority of the mural himself except for a small section at the top, which he enlisted a few of his fellow artist friends to help with. 

Connor Fogal paints the top left section of his mural while sitting in his wheelchair which is on top of a riser.
This mural is the largest Fogal has ever painted, and he painted using a riser to reach the top section of the artwork.

“It’s been amazing to see how many people have come together to support Connor in this effort – from the Lilley Museum to his family, to the tattoo artists at the shop where he gets his tattoos who came to help paint,” Barber said. “This project has clearly meant something to a lot of people. Connor has an amazing ability to bring people together."

With his mural complete, Fogal is looking at his next goals, one of which is continuing his work as an advocate for others with disabilities. In 2011, he launched My Life on Wheels (MyLOW), an advocacy organization that brings awareness to the world of all types of disabilities. Through MyLOW, Fogal sells his art to fund trips for children and adults with disabilities to attend ski schools in Northern Nevada.

“Most of my life I have wondered what it would be like to go somewhere and not be stared at because I am in a wheelchair,” Fogal said during his speech to launch the organization in December 2011. “I am not all that different from you, just challenged because of my situation. With a ‘Yes I can, just watch me’ attitude, I have not let cerebral palsy keep me from experiencing life.”

Currently, he is working to create legislation that would ensure parts for motorized wheelchairs are stored in Nevada, helping to decrease the time it takes to repair a chair when it breaks. Fogal was inspired to advocate for this change because of his own experiences and those of his friends, including one friend who was without her chair for a full year waiting for it to be repaired.

“[Those experiences] made me start working on this project,” he said. “There are so many stories like my friend’s all over the U.S.” 

Barber will follow Fogal’s work on the wheelchair repair bill as part of the documentary.

“He is able to achieve so much and have a fulfilling social life, but all of that is at risk when simple accommodations aren’t made,” Barber said. “He’s advocating for reforms that would help change that and for society to stop seeing accessibility as an afterthought but as central and essential.”

The film’s release is scheduled for spring 2025, and she plans to partner with NCED for screening and discussion events, enter the film into festivals and seek television broadcast.

Fogal’s mural was unveiled during a public reception on May 31. It will be available for viewing until the summer of 2025.

Connor Fogal poses with members of the University community in front of his "Emerald Bay" mural
The Lilley hosted a reception to unveil Fogal's mural, and Fogal received a certificate from Senator Jackie Rosen's office during the event.

“Connor Fogal’s favorite subject to paint is water. It offers endless colors and texture, revealing the depths of a space while reflecting the skies above,” the description accompanying his mural reads. “Each brushstroke is visible and profound. His art is not merely a depiction of the world around him but also a subtle defiance of its boundaries.”

A mural of Emerald Bay is painted on a cream colored wall in the Front Door Gallery with a bench in front of it for viewing.
"Emerald Bay" is available for viewing until the summer of 2025.

With his artwork complete, he is ready for his next mural and hopes that his art will serve as a reminder of what people are capable of.  

“This mural means so much to me because it shows that it doesn’t matter if you are in a wheelchair or you paint using your head, you can still make a beautiful piece of art.”

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