Equipment Corner June 2007

by Alyssa Quintero on Fri, 2007-06-01 09:16

A chat with digital painter Michael Bougher

Michael Bougher of Benicia, Calif., received a diagnosis of ALS in July 1998, and is completely paralyzed from the neck down. A former project control systems designer and project manager for Telstar, Bougher was a self-proclaimed workaholic before ALS came into the picture. Now, assistive technology (AT) has enabled him to pursue a new passion – digital painting.

With some head movement, Bougher, 42, has created some 70 digital paintings — from scratch — since he began three years ago. Here, he shares his thoughts about AT, and how it’s improved his quality of life by helping to bring his paintings to life on the computer screen.


Q: How has AT improved your quality of life?

To execute mouse clicks, Bougher bulges his cheek "bullfrog style," using an old telephone headset and a light-touch switch attached with paper medical tape.

A: I’m grateful to have ALS in this age of technological development. Using my computer, I communicate with people all over the world, and I express myself through art, control my environment, travel, operate my entertainment center and listen to audio books. I’m more fulfilled now than at any other time in my life, due in large part to the boundaries that AT removes.

Q: What aids do you use to operate the computer?

A: I use a head pointer called the Tracker One (by Madentec) to interface with the computer. A
reflective dot is placed on your forehead or eyeglasses, and the device uses a beam of infrared light to track your head movement. I put mine on the brim of a ball cap to amplify my movement. The up, down, right and left motion of your head is then converted to cursor movements.

To execute mouse clicks, I built a switch system that I could operate by bulging my cheek “bullfrog style” using an old telephone headset and a light-touch switch that I attached with paper medical tape. Because this provided only one switch input, I also use MouseTool dwell software for right clicks.

For word processing and communication, I use the DynaVox Series 4 software, and through improvements to the software, I’m building a program that’s extremely efficient for producing e-mails or word documents.

I also purchased, installed and configured PowerHome home automation software. To operate the entertainment center, I used a RedRat, which is a device that plugs into a USB port on your computer and produces infrared signals like a remote control.

I also used PowerHome to control fans, lights and other applicances.

Q: What is the learning curve for using the head pointer?

A: With a minimum amount of practice, it’s pretty easy to learn. It probably took several weeks to achieve efficiency, but it’s faster and more accurate than pushing the mouse around with limited arm movement like I did before. I still have reasonable range of motion in my neck, so I can circumnavigate the entire screen without much trouble, and I compensate for the disease’s progression by increasing the mouse speed in the software.

Michael Bougher

Q: What sparked your interest in digital painting?

A: I’ve always enjoyed looking at paintings, and about three years ago, I realized that with my assistive computer equipment, I had the ability to try digital painting. I think it’s central to the human experience to enjoy creating, and digital painting is essentially the only way I can still “create.”

Q: What is your processs for creating the digital paintings?

A: I primarily use Adobe Photoshop CS, and while some may assume I’m manipulating photographs, the program actually contains a comprehensive set of tools for creating original art. My paintings contain no photos or scans.

For photo-realism paintings, I typically remember a place we’ve visited in the past, and I use photos for reference. The images are created starting in the background, adding layers on layers to build depth into the piece. A typical painting has 100 to 200 layers and takes as many hours to complete.

An abstract painting starts with a strong spiritual emotion. To express a feeling, I use a math algorithm to generate shapes, and I play with the variables until I get a basic form that seems to convey my thoughts. I produce three or four complimentary shapes and layer them on top of each other. Then comes the fun part — adding color, effects and making the layers work together. It’s a liberating experience!

Q: What is your favorite painting?

Despite the photographic look, Bougher's creations, such as "The Path," are made from scratch.

A: “Global Peace” is my favorite because it best expresses some of my deepest emotions, and I experience calm stillness when I look at it.

Q: What is the story behind one of your latest paintings,“The Path”?

A: The image is centered on a bridge I crossed in a rainforest located in Costa Rica several years ago. As I was painting it, I realized that it also represents the spiritual journey that I’m traveling through with ALS.

Q: Thanks to advances in AT, what role does painting play in your life?

A: One of the most devastating aspects of a debilitating disease like ALS is the inevitable loss of self-esteem and the feeling that you can no longer contribute to society. Through MDA fund-raiser auctions, I’ve used my work to raise funds for ALS research and family services. Painting provides me a way to give back and retain the dignity that’s so often lost among people with ALS.

And, I’ve learned that even something as devastating as ALS can’t crush the human spirit unless you let it. The miracles of modern technology can open portals through which even a severely disabled person can connect with their fellow man.

Bougher’s painting “Grand Cayman Archway” is part of the MDA Art Collection. His painting “French Quarter Flavor” was part of the auction held this March at the Black & Blue Bash for Augie’s Quest in San Francisco. The auction raised $2.1 million for MDA’s ALS research program.

Alyssa Quintero
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