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Seeking a higher place

Wheelchair-bound artist finds an audience in Tokyo Shinto shrine

Dan Sali is connected to a wheelchair most of the time, but that doesn't stop him from connecting with nature and beauty.

And that's what caught the eye of a travelling Japanese priest, who invited Sali to exhibit his paintings at a Shinto shrine in Tokyo recently.

"I believe it's a first for a Canadian artist," said the soft-spoken Sali, 53, who has muscular dystrophy and spends much of his time in a motorized wheelchair.

"I have many physical barriers but I look at them as opportunities to grow. I'm aware of my body and place in this world, but there are other higher places to exist," the Victoria artist said, after returning from Japan.

The show was instigated by Victoria potter Harumi Ota, who admires Sali's work and described it to a friend visiting from Japan named Kaya Wataru.

The Shinto priest was so impressed he organized an exhibit at his shrine.

"Dan's painting is symbolic and good for the shrine display because of its imagery," Ota said this week. "He is also a good friend, and as an artist I appreciate his talent."

Sali said the priest felt a strong connection "between my thinking and the basic Shinto beliefs about balance between nature and human interaction. He only saw photos originally, and I was very pleased when he held a picture to his chest and said: 'This is my heart.' "

The show of 20 ink and watercolour works was displayed in the shrine during November, and organizers want to create a touring exhibit. The priest is also talking about setting up a foundation to promote art workshops for children with disabilities.

"They are impressed with the art, and also sort of impressed with how I live my life and move through it with my disability. They joke about my being Japanese in my last life," said Sali, who was born in Regina and moved here six years ago. He never went to art school, but worked as an art teacher for several years.

His disease is progressive -- "Walking is dicey so I use a power chair, but I can still draw" -- and he was recently part of a two-person show at the Victoria Arts Connection gallery, as well as a group exhibition of Canadian artists and illustrators at the Pacific Festival of the Book.

His paintings are full of fanciful birds, bubbles, spheres, light beams and solar systems. In one is a view of outer space framed by two blue herons with wings outstretched. "The herons are guardians of solitude, gatekeepers of consciousness," says the artist, who is inspired by quantum physics and Buddhist thought.

One of his most uplifting moments was years ago while meditating on a hill in Saskatoon: "I had a sudden feeling of connection that lasted 10 minutes. I could hear the grass moving, all the insects . . . It was one of those defining moments when you realize you are part of everything."

He added the recent trip was special because old friends bought his airline ticket, and new friends in Japan took care of everything else. Sali lives on a disability pension, and hopes to raise his standard of living through his art.

His next show is in May at the Collective Works Gallery in Fernwood.

glitwin@tc.canwest.com

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