In life there are some people who, after meeting them, can rock your world. Palm Beach Gardens resident Mark Sotak is one of those people. His tale is one of woe, divine intervention and perseverance. He has cheated death by surviving two catastrophic car accidents, pursued a rigorous academic path resulting in his juris doctorate from Ohio State University and has since traded a career as a lawyer for one as a professional artist.
But while all of his accomplishments are admirable, there is one crucial detail about his talent that will leave you in awe. Sotak paints all of his canvases using only his mouth.
A quadriplegic, Sotak has limited use of his upper arms and feels nothing below his chest. But his artwork, which is described as “hyper realism,” is as good (if not better) than any trained artist’s.
Since 2005, his work has been featured in local galleries such as The Brewhouse Gallery in Lake Park, art shows like ArtiGras in Jupiter, and in international exhibits in places like Paris, Madrid and Thailand. The latter of which has been thanks to the efforts of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA), an international organization committed to publishing and selling disabled artists’ works of art.
There was a time, however, when Sotak wasn’t always confined to a life in a wheelchair. He was once a guitar-playing, ocean-loving jock, who dreamed of being the next Jacques Cousteau. But his life was forever changed in 1981.
Sotak was a freshman in college when he and a group of his fraternity brothers were in a near-fatal car wreck. The driver, who had been drinking, lost control of the car, and it rolled multiple times before landing in a ravine. Sotak’s friends walked away unscathed, while Sotak was face down in a ditch.
But Sotak doesn’t remember lying on the ground, at least, not right away. Rather, he remembers walking barefoot toward a horizon so bright he had to shade his eyes with his hands. Behind him he heard screaming. When he turned to look, he says he saw his friends surrounding his lifeless body. He continued toward the light, but the screaming drew him back.
That’s when he says he heard a voice ask, “Do you know who I am?” To which Sotak replied, “You’re Jesus.” The voice continued. “It’s going to be a long time, but you’re going to be OK.”
Sotak later woke up in the hospital.
“I would have these discussions with God and ask, ‘Why me?’” Sotak says. “I thought because I had squandered my athletic talent and intelligence, I needed to try harder.”
So, he entered into an agreement with God, believing he’d be rewarded for feats that defied his circumstance. Sotak became a successful lawyer, cofounded a marketing and promotions company, and got married. However, as the years passed, he didn’t heal as he had expected. So, his spirit began to wane and a depression took over. By 1998 Sotak lost his marketing company, sold his law practice and went through a divorce.
In 2002, two years after moving to Florida, he was in another car accident that left him uninjured, but emotionally distraught.
After a few days, Sotak ventured into the clubhouse at his development. There, he met his neighbor, Mary Bowker, who was painting. A few days later, Bowker showed up at Sotak’s front door with an easel in tow. She stuck a brush in his mouth and encouraged him to paint.
Like a fish to water, Sotak was a natural. And he eventually found purpose again.
Today, Sotak’s oil paintings can be found on his website, marksotak.com. He’s focusing on opening a cooperative gallery in Lake Park by early 2016, and on elevating his student membership with MFPA to either associate or full membership status.
It has been a long time since Sotak, 52, heard a voice say he was going to be OK. And while it’s still surreal to consider himself an artist, he accepts it.
“I think it’s my ministry to people,” Sotak says. “I can’t get up and about, but it’s a way for me to tell them it’s all for the glory of God.”