The view is southward, from Calvert Street. In the foreground: cars, abutments, a lone pedestrian. In the background: the stylish apartment houses of Kalorama. The detail is intricate, unerring, almost photographic. Even the cracks in the sidewalk stand out. It's little wonder that "Connecticut Avenue Bridge," a watercolor by Rockville artist Eric Mohn, won the blue ribbon in the Potomac Art League's spring show.
The wonder is Eric Mohn himself.
He is a quadriplegic who paints with a brush held in his mouth. For him to have won an open-to-all-comers art show against hundreds of artists without handicaps is miraculous. Twice before, Mohn won first prize at exhibits for handicapped artists. But "a real show? Against real artists? I was just very, very elated."
It's almost excruciatingly ironic that Mohn's winning painting displays cars. For it was in 1964, half his life ago, that a Volkswagen Mohn was driving turned him, and his life, upside down.
"It was six days before my 18th birthday. I was driving myself and three other fellows. It was in Lewes, Del. A lady ahead of me started to turn into a shopping center and then she changed her mind. I T-boned her; smashed right into her."
Eric Mohn jerks himself erect in the wheelchair before he recites the injury report: "One friend got a concussion. One lost a tooth. I broke my neck." He is so used to explaining that it sounds almost routine.
Mohn has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. He says he is moving better than he could 15 years ago. For example, he can now dial a touch-tone phone with the edge of his right hand--an impossibility immediately after the accident. But "I can't use my fingers at all," Mohn says. For an artist, that is as formidable as a handicap gets.
But Mohn's success as an artist is even more remarkable because he didn't pursue art as either a hobby or a living until he sold a van-pooling business in 1977. Even then, his entrance into art was chancy.
"My aunt had given me an acrylic paint set," Mohn said. "I was down in Nags Head N.C. and I went into a gallery one day. I got hooked. I looked around and thought, 'I can do that.' So I started to try."
Mohn had shown artistic talent before his accident. He studied mechanical drawing at Richard Montgomery High School, and says that he probably would have become an architect if his accident hadn't occurred. But during the early months and years of treatment and therapy, "I'll be honest with you. I was depressed. I had some tough times. I didn't think much about art."
Today, he sometimes thinks about little else for days at a time. Working in a sun-splashed wing of his parents' Rockville home, Mohn paints about one watercolor a week. In addition, he has recently begun producing a line of greeting cards with his sketches on the front flaps.
"Watercolor paintings just don't bring in much money," Mohn says. "I'll never sell portraits like Andrew Wyeth, for thousands. But I am certainly making a living as an artist, and I never dreamed I would."
Mohn will not deny that, if he could snap his fingers and have another try at that horrible day in Delaware, he would do it.
"I was just getting ready to go to football camp before my senior year in high school. I was 190 pounds, in great shape . . . . To go from that to where you're lying there knowing your neck is broken, well . . . ." He doesn't finish the thought. He doesn't have to.
But Mohn is no Gloomy Gus. "My disability and I have an understanding; this is the way it's going to be," he says, as he leans his mouth toward the painting on which he's working. "As far as winning prizes goes, I feel the same as I would if I weren't handicapped. The gratification is entering. Winning is sort of a plus."
But wasn't winning the Potomac show delicious? "It was like getting an A on your first journalism paper, Bob," Eric Mohn replies.
"I want you to understand something," says Mohn, as he carefully lets his brush drop from his teeth into a coffee can. "I really don't want to be a handicapped artist. I want to be an artist, period."
The day they hung that blue ribbon on the bridge scene, there ceased to be any doubt.