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Heroes Carry Paintbrushes

Sometimes we read a book or watch a movie and then we sit back, thinking about how much we admire the protagonist.  As someone who reads a lot of books, I’ve often thought about how amazing it would be if the candor and dedication of some of the most influential literary figures could be brought to life.  This supposition always seemed like a silly fantasy; the people we create for books and the stories we tell are just that: fictional.  They are figments of our imagination for a reason; they are the purest thoughts that we could muster.  Real people couldn’t possibly live up to those standards. However, I’ve been lucky enough to learn that these influential protagonists do exist, and I was even luckier to have one of these protagonists as a client, Brandur Karlsson.  My outlook on life has become a blank slate due to the week that I spent in Iceland.

We spent time at Frumbjörg, a social innovation center founded by Brandur, working toward improving their social media presence and their community awareness.  Frumbjörg’s mission is to create a specific space in society for people with disabilities to come together as innovative minds and create new ventures.  Specifically, we were helping Brandur promote and launch his new idea, “The List,” an online platform meant to unite people with problems in the health and welfare-related sector with those equipped to solve problems.  Brandur has discussed his inability to complain about a problem unless he has the means to solve it; his new venture takes this personal philosophy and projects it on Iceland.  Through “The List,” he hopes to create a place for communities to come together and solve problems by gathering various opinions of professionals and non-professionals to reach new innovative heights.  Brandur believes that sometimes problems do not gain traction or attention because they are not being talked about by the right people.  The List allows the “right people” to come together.

We spent the week in Iceland learning about Frumbjörg and Brandur, and we helped the center host a 24 Hour Innovation Day meant to spark interest about “The List.”  The atmosphere during the innovation day was truly charged, and I felt a sense of both peace and pride from being involved in the process.  Brandur pushed through challenges of setting up, reaching out to many people, and even gaining the attention ofGuðni Th. Jóhannesson, the President of Iceland.  The president attended, even promising to attend future days.  He attributed his commitment to the incredible outlook at Frumbjörg, the tenacity to push past truly difficult obstacles for a better future.  Being in such an atmosphere was a truly sobering experience, and I’m thankful that I was able to meet a protagonist that seemed truly too good to be true.

Brandur began to discuss his story only when prompted.  His symptoms started slowly; he experienced some numbness and cramping, but eventually lost the use of his arms and legs.  We found out that he was misdiagnosed twice, first told that he had a brain tumor, then told he had MS; both times it was insinuated that he would die near the age of thirty.  Instead of expressing sorrow, Brandur shared that the feeling was liberating; he expressed that he no longer had to discover who he wanted to be when he grew up.  Once he received antibiotics and his condition stabled, the doctors began to hypothesize that it was some sort of bacteria that infected his spine, but they could not be sure without performing risky tests.  Brandur accepted his condition, deciding to move forward, joking that he now had to decide what to do with his life, but also expressing that the blank slate was an invigorating notion.

This blank slate that Brandur talks about correlates to his parallel comparison of artists and innovators.  Brandur began mouth-painting, trying to develop the creative part of his brain.  Eventually, he found this as a therapy, a way to connect to the nature he could no longer wander in physically.  However, the mental capacity to do so was still alive and well.  Through creating these scenes, Brandur was able to not just immerse himself in this reality, but create the reality for himself.  His courageous and steadfast outlook on life extends from his personal hobbies into his professional outlook.

It was impossible to live in his shadow for a week and not adopt the same sense of “anything is possible.”  In this way, art is related to innovation because Brandur is creating the solutions for self-betterment and community-betterment.  He was handed a sealed fate, had his mobility removed, but instead of giving up, he turned that fate into a blank canvas.  With that blank canvas, he drew Frumbjörg, and through Frumbjörg, he is changing the lives of each person who moves through their doors, mine included.  Brandur is a hero in every sense of the word because he instills the belief that you really can achieve your wildest dreams, all you need is your will and a blank canvas.

Guest post written by: Virginia Merrill.

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