As a musician, Ernie Hargust’s art always took him on the road. A talented singer-songwriter, he traveled all over the East Coast performing for packed crowds. In fact, he was on the way to a gig when he was in an auto accident that changed his life forever. He survived the crash, but sustained a C4 spinal cord injury.
He was at Magee first as an inpatient and then as an outpatient at the Riverfront Outpatient Center. It was there he was introduced to a new kind of art: art therapy. “I told Lori Tiberi, Magee’s art therapist I wanted to try. I wasn’t an artist, but I really wanted to use my hands,” he said. “I soon found out art therapy was good exercise not just for my hands, but also my mind.”
As it turns out, Ernie’s creativity expands beyond music. He thrived in art therapy, creating paintings and drawings by the dozens. When he began as an inpatient, the work was very labored and slow—but as he developed in his recovery, so did his work. When the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation announced they were holding an art competition in 2014, Magee’s art therapist Lori knew just who should apply.
The contest, called Expressions of Paralysis Art Competition, was created to honor the life of Rubin Rios, an ambassador of the Reeve Foundation and talented artist who passed away earlier that year. Artists from across the country were asked to submit their artwork, which would then be posted in an online gallery. The paintings with the most votes would then be showcased on the walls of the Reeve Foundation office in Short Hills, New Jersey. The painting Ernie submitted to the competition was a piece he created during art therapy. It depicts a piano surrounded with musical notes. “I wanted to create something that was based on my childhood,” he said. “When I was a kid, my mom really wanted me to play the piano. She got me started in lessons, and I loved them. But the neighborhood I lived in was dangerous, and it started to become unsafe for me to walk to lessons. So I had to quit. Luckily, my music teacher at school helped me develop my voice. So even though I never went back to the piano, I have been singing for the past 40 years. Music is very important to me. I believe it brings out the best in people.”
When the voting began, Team Magee banded together to rally votes for Ernie—and Ernie’s painting was one of 10 selected to hang at the Reeve headquarters! Ernie was pretty pumped to get the news—and so we were we. “I just can’t believe it,” he said, when he was told his work was one of the top 10 selected. Today, beyond his artistic prowess, Ernie has made incredible improvement. He can now dress himself, stand, and even walk a little. But even greater than his physical improvements are his emotional ones. “All of my work at Magee has improved my confidence,” he said. “I thought I would never be able to do these things again, but with confidence and prayer, I am doing it.” He certainly is.