Alex Biagi initially posted his painting of a fox on Reddit last month hoping to drum up a little support for an April auction supporting his favorite animal rescue group in Denver.
But when a video of him working on the painting went viral with more than 44,000 “upvotes” and was followed by almost 100,000 positive votes for an oil painting of a rooster, Biagi was inundated with requests on social media from people hoping to buy copies of his work.
Although Biagi was surprised, he probably should not have been. His new fans were in awe when they watched his technique: He paints by holding a brush in his mouth because he no longer has the use of his hands.
Fifteen years ago, Biagi, who lives in Morrison, Colo., was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) — a rare autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes sensory loss and weakness. No longer able to draw, paint or play the piano, Biagi gave up his artistic pursuits until his mother showed him a calendar in 2015 featuring projects by mouth and foot artists who also could not use their hands and arms.
"I was blown away,” said Biagi, 38. “I thought, ‘Wow, if they can do this, so can I.’ "
He asked his mother, Caroline Biagi, to drive him to Michael’s to pick up art supplies and a table easel and then went to work, teaching himself to hold a paintbrush in his mouth and to apply the right pressure to the canvas.
One of his first mouth paintings, the one of the rooster, took several months to finish.
Drawing and painting always came naturally to him, he said. The first time he remembers drawing was at age 6 at his kitchen table with paper and crayons to sketch out a likeness of Spider-Man.
"When I was a kid, I’d sit down to sketch something almost every day,” Biagi said. “I was always running through paper. It’s something that continued through junior high and high school and when I went to community college. I loved creating with my hands.”
Biagi’s plan was to earn a degree in 3-D animation and design from Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood. His dream was to get a job with the Walt Disney Company or Marvel Entertainment. But in 2004, while working at Costco near his hometown, his plans were put on hold. Biagi, then 24, suddenly developed cramping in his left hand and could not spread his fingers apart. He thought that perhaps his hands were simply tired from playing the piano or clicking his computer mouse.
When the problem spread quickly to his right hand, Biagi’s physician thought he might have carpal tunnel syndrome and referred him to a specialist for outpatient surgery. As the pain and numbness worsened and more tests were done, physicians discovered Biagi had CIDP.
By September 2005, his legs and feet had also weakened, and he difficulty walking. Eventually, he needed a power wheelchair.
"I had to quit my job, and I also realized that I could no longer live in an apartment on my own,” Biagi recalled. “So I had to move back in with my parents. I went into a depression for a while about having to give up my independence.”
His parents were empty-nesters after Biagi had followed his older brother and sister into college. But they were ready and eager to help.
“He’d had roommates and freedom and his whole life ahead of him,” Caroline Biagi, 67, said. “Then this. It wasn’t a big deal for him to return home, but it changed everything. Each new development in his condition was serious for all of us.”
Alex Biagi’s father, Mauro Biagi, installed a new shower and did some remodeling around the house to make everything more accessible for his son, who suddenly needed help with skills he had once taken for granted such as bathing, dressing and putting together a simple sandwich for lunch.
While life has been hard on Biagi and his parents, his father said that at his core his son is the same person he was before the diagnosis: “He’s a good kid — ambitious, full of ideas and very smart.”
Three years ago, Biagi had a stem cell transplant through a clinical trial program at the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute in Denver.
"Basically, they wiped out my entire immune system and bone marrow, and everything rebuilds over time,” he said. “I was in the hospital for 43 days.”
Although the recovery was challenging, Biagi said he has since seen a dramatic turnaround in the progression of his disease. With braces on both legs, he is walking again without pain and has noticed an uptick in his energy and stamina.
"My left hand is still completely paralyzed, but I've regained quite a bit of motion in my right arm and some in my left arm,” he said. “And what's really great is that I now have enough strength in my right hand to use a computer mouse, so I can work again on graphic design and music.”
Biagi hopes one day he will be able to pick up a paintbrush in his hand, as well. If not, he will continue to transfer his visions with his mouth, he said.
Already, he has completed seven paintings and has found new motivation from strangers who have left him hundreds of heartfelt messages of encouragement online. Messages such as, “I don’t think I’d ever be able to do something like this. Mad props to you, dude,” and “You paint this with your mouth, and I can barely throw a stickman together with my hands. Wow!”
People who saw his paintings were perhaps most impressed with a portrait Biagi, a longtime basketball fan, created of LeBron James, star forward for the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I’m a huge fan of his, and I love how he helps out his community and is a great role model,” said Biagi, who dreams about meeting James. “He has a big heart, and that means a lot, especially today.”
Because so many people have asked for copies of his painting of James, along with his other works, Biagi now sells prints on his website, alexbiagi.com.
“Painting is a time to zone out and focus and forget about my worries,” Biagi said. “I have a lot to be grateful for. I’m painting again, I’m walking again. Life feels really good for me right now.”