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A beautiful picture

NMSU engineering students help develop innovative art station

Sam Cueto likes to paint, mostly landscapes and abstract paintings. It has been a difficult interest for him to pursue – Cueto is a quadriplegic. His drive, a compassionate therapist’s search for a solution and the technological help of engineering students at NMSU led to a uniquely designed art station that makes it easier for him to engage in his creative pastime.

Cueto lost his mobility due to negligence during a surgery when he was 8 years old.

“Sam had been painting for quite some time. Some of his therapists tried to jimmy a way for him to hold a paintbrush in his mouth with a head array,” says Erika Hernandez, Cueto’s occupational therapist. Former therapists encouraged Cueto to paint as a method to strengthen his neck and increase head control.

“It was like a head gear that I used to use and it put a lot of stress on my jaw and my neck,” Cueto says. “We just had a little stand so I had to be repositioned a lot. I had to lean forward and it wasn’t independent as I would have liked to be painting.” 

Cueto had success with his work. His family’s veterinarian uses his paintings on postcards. 

Hernandez set out to find painting adaptations for people with physical limitations but found there were not many options. 

“I just thought outside of what I could do and looked at the resources around us that might provide something outside of traditional things,” Hernandez says. “I cast that line and got a bigtime bite and it was phenomenal.” 

The big bite came from Gabe Garcia, associate dean of experiential learning and student success for the College of Engineering. In the spring 2021 semester, Garcia gave the idea to a senior engineering capstone class, the culmination of an engineering student’s degree program when students design and manufacture a project.

Hernandez, Sam’s mother, his physical therapist and speech language pathologist provided Garcia with insight for the design to meet Cueto’s needs. He needed a device that would support a brush and help to position the canvas, enabling the canvas to be positioned closer to him. The student group and Hernandez met with Cueto on Zoom to discuss the project. 

Sami Naser served as lead engineer for the project, Micheal Rivera, team manager; Amanda Stoyanoff, documentation engineer; Joshua Santana, Andres Caballero and Sam Torres made up the rest of the team. The students designed a free-standing art station, outfitting it with mechanical arms and other parts. They were assisted by fellow students Veronica Gurrola, Kelsey Hayes and Reyes Lucero in the Aggie Innovation Space, who created parts using 3D printing and other methods of fabrication.

“Our first goal was to identify the needs of the client,” Naser says. “It needed to be light and comfortable, have a lighter mouth piece and we wanted it to be fully customizable. It consists of an easel mount, painting pallet and cupholder – it rotates and moves up and down. We also made paint-brush adapters for three different brush sizes.”

They also wanted it to be affordable. The total cost, provided by the College of Engineering, was $731.65, well below their $2,000 budget. They delivered the art station in August 2021.

“I’m impressed with the effort that the students put in to make it specifically for him. They thought it out just for him,” Hernandez says.

“I can be painting even more than I used to,” Cueto says. “It’s awesome. I like the way it looks. I like how I’m sitting here in a perfect little spot for me to paint. I love how they added the Superman decals because that’s one of my favorite heroes. It’s great.” 

Painting is just one of Cueto’s ambitions. He earned an associate degree in government from the Doña Ana Community College in spring 2021 and started classes as a junior at NMSU in fall 2021 pursuing pre-law and psychology. He hopes to become an attorney.

“I am so grateful to everyone that helped with my art station,” Cueto says. “It will give me the freedom and creativity to paint more independently.”

NMSU engineering students Amanda Stoyanoff (from left), Joshua Santana and Sami Naser with Sam Cueto (seated), show off the new art station that was created specifically for Cueto as part of their senior engineering capstone class.