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Ottawa man embracing disability, spreading joy through art and volunteering

Paul Knoll is an artist who also happens to have Down syndrome.
2020-12-15 paul knoll hgj
Photo/ Paul Knoll/ Facebook

In the face of disability, Paul Knoll’s motto is to just keep on going.

After retiring from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 2016, the 48-year-old Ottawa resident has been steadily building accolades toward his blossoming art career, and in addition to a successful show, a variety of his murals now adorn the Westboro neighbourhood. 

Although enjoying the leisure of retirement very much, Knoll prefers to keep himself busy, and has spent a decade as one of the top volunteers for the now defunct annual summer event WestFest.

In May 2018, the Dovercourt Recreation Centre featured his acrylic paintings, which can be described as "folk style," at a well-attended vernissage, and it was further requested that he paint a mural on the outdoor pool, which now features his signature bright colours in an uplifting landscape.  

Word of Knoll’s talent is starting to spread, and recently a neighbour, Nick Aplin, commissioned a mural on his Byron Avenue home’s garage.  

“He's a really lovely man who invites Paul for coffee on a weekly basis. He's such a sweet man and he wanted Paul to do this project for him,” explains Knoll’s sister, Helen Ries.  

Knoll’s style radiates positivity and his newest project doesn’t stray from that, featuring a rainbow, bumblebee and sunflowers. Although the three-week project came to a glaring halt when Knoll dislocated a hip (his health is currently on the mend), he looks forward to finishing the project in the near future.  

A childhood spent in Ottawa, Knoll never strayed far.

Although Ries lived for some time in Toronto, she’s recently relocated back to the city to live with Knoll after their parents passed. Although he admits that a diagnosis of Down syndrome hasn’t made his life easy, he’s surrounded by a community that embraces difference, instead of pathologizing it.  

Forever an artistic person at heart, Ries explains of Knoll’s work, “Certainly how he’s feeling and how he sees the world comes out in his art. [There’s] a lot of bright colours and he’s very positive so his paintings [reflect that].” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially difficult for Knoll.

“I’m sick and tired of it,” he exclaims. “It’s pretty hard for everybody in the whole neighbourhood out there and I don’t know what’s going on.”

Since he relies on the federally incorporated non-profit LiveWorkPlay, which supports his attainment of an independent lifestyle, it’s been a struggle to be apart during the pandemic. But, Ries insists that he’s been spending a lot of time helping around the house, cooking, keeping things tidy and doing his own laundry, in addition to studying poetry through local program Dragonfly, devoted to learners with Down syndrome.  

As an active member of the community, you may have spotted Knoll at the CHEO bike ride, Art in the Park or the Farmer’s Market (although he frets over the cancellation).

But while, like the majority of Ottawans, Knoll waits for the world to return to something resembling normalcy, he is receiving an abundance of positive feedback on Facebook regarding his art and admits that he’s on his way to a "high demand status." There are no extravagant ambitions for the time being. Knoll simply hopes to continue pursuing one of the many things that bring him so much joy.

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