Guest Blogger: Ann Millett-Gallant on art and disability

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Look here! I am thrilled to get to post some art and writing by a community member!

Dr. Ann Millett-Gallant has been examining disability and art for a long time. After a traumatic brain injury in 2007, she had a new set of experiences around art and disability. Here is some writing going toward her memoir. It describes this collage that she made during her brain injury recovery:

Collage of photos, drawings, get well cards, and magazine images exploring Ann Millett-Gallant's body, marriage, and healing.

“Introduction: Lost.  And Found?

For much of 2007, my existence may best be characterized as lost.  I had lost weight, lost hair, lost part of my skull, lost much muscular movement and fluidity, and lost my mobility.  I had lost my memory, my history, my savings, my sense of security, and my identity.  I had lost my mind.

Backing up….In May of 2007, I was vacationing in San Francisco with my friend, Anna.  We were exiting a café and for some unknown reason, I shot ahead on my travel scooter and fell off the high curb of the sidewalk into the street.  According to Anna, I was not obviously drunk, sick, excessively tired, or otherwise impaired before this.  It was unexplainable.  I hit my head, began to bleed, and an ambulance was called.

This was all told to me later, as I have no recollection of the accident, any of the trip, or even planning it.  I have blocked the whole experience out.  I have blocked a lot of experiences out.  Even as my memory congeals, much of my life takes place in stories and photographs, but not in the sensations of BEING there.  I don’t have any flashes of being in the San Francisco hospital for 6 weeks after part of my skull was removed to allow for swelling, much of the time in a coma, and I recall very little of my time spent in a rehab hospital in Columbus, OH (where I grew up and my family lives).  I only remember grueling therapy sessions there and one kind nurse, who let me have the whole container of chocolate pudding that was used to help me swallow medications.  I moved in with my mother at the end of the summer, in a place she had rented, but that I thought was her home I didn’t remember.  Slowly, my strength and endurance came back.  I exercised, read, wrote in a journal, drew in a sketchbook, and began to re-member – to put mind and body back together.  Yet, I was content to rarely leave my sanctuary.

In a couple months, I had surgery on my skull to reconstruct the amputation, after which, I had been told, I would improve drastically.  Unfortunately, I had to endure a week in the hospital before I had the surgery, after an anesthesiologist punctured my lungs trying to put an IV in my chest.  But I digress.  I did feel better after my skull was intact, and in just a few weeks, I began teaching an online class, one of the three that I was supposed to be teaching full time that Fall.  My knowledge of art history, the humanities, and how to teach came right back and, likely, got stronger.  I was able to concentrate and exert authority, more and more over time.  I soon moved back to my home in North Carolina and to my boyfriend, whose name I could now remember.  As 2008 progressed, so did I, and I was determined to no longer put anything off.  I proposed to the man I love and got married, taught full time, and began to write scholarly articles and to paint again.  But I was still lost.

Backing up further….As a congenital amputee, I have been physically disabled since birth.  I was born asymmetrical, as my right extremities are longer than my left; my right arm ends with a pointy tip, which serves as my hand, and my left arm ends just below the elbow with a soft, tiny finger known as a “residual limb.”  My right leg ends below the knee with another residual limb I have called my “tickle” since I was a child, and my left leg is a few inches long and appears like a ball with a large dimple at the end.  Indoors, I crawl or move around on the floor in a seated position, in an act I call my “butt scoot,” and I use prosthetic legs and crutches to walk some.  I learned how to manipulate my “hands” and legs with numerous adaptations, such that I can do almost whatever I want to do with practice, innovation, and the right resources.  I have also incorporated disability studies as a discipline, as well as my identity as a disabled woman, into my teaching and writing.  I am (was?) independent and proud of it.  I have traveled internationally, lived in 3 cities, and gotten my PhD.  I was, for better or worse, fearless.  Now I feel anxious taking my scooter to the grocery store.  But the anxiety about injury lessens over time.  The anxiety over being lost and having lost control are still, and may always be, unbearable.  I can’t sleep through the night, my moods fluctuate from high to low without warning, and I can’t remember certain people, places, and personal things.  I sometimes have to laugh as, for example, I realize that not everyone looks oddly familiar because I have forgotten them, but that people just look alike.  I can laugh at my loss, at times, while at other times I am consumed by feelings of emptiness and the desire to know what happened, and why.

I have learned countless things from my accident, about myself and the world I live in.  But the main thing I have learned is that “lost” and “found” are not absolutes.  They are states of being, always in flux.  They collide, overlap, and intertwine.  Sometimes, they make it a chore to get up in the morning.  And sometimes, they produce accidental masterpieces.

I draw the term “accidental masterpiece” from a volume of essays by The New York Times art critic and columnist Michael Kimmelman (2005).  The readings explore the many intersections between art and everyday life, with the theme that art is the ultimate accident.  Accidents in literal and figurative forms catalyze discovery, insight, creative production, and indeed, often “accidental” (unexpected and fortuitous) masterpieces.  I center one of my courses on this text, and the students have a writing assignment based on tales of loss and discovery.  I was inspired by the course to write this essay.

I created one of many accidental masterpieces in the form of a collage, which predates this book and reflects many themes of my experiences during my accident and recovery.   The title of the collage, “Re-Membering,” refers to the ongoing process of integrating the past with present, as well as synthesizing my mental, emotional, and corporeal transformations.  The collage format embodies my accident and recovery both visually and viscerally; these visual fragments “collide, overlap, and intertwine,” as do my states of mind.  I describe my memory as a random collage of stories and pictures that are not contained by an overarching narrative.  It is both a jumble and a medley.  Like my thought patterns and my memory, the collage is composed of images, words, and objects that do not illustrate a linear narrative, but rather these fragments relate piece by piece, in a chain of associations.  Framing the canvas is a selection of get well cards, chosen from a countless stack, which shows the range of people who thought of and reached out to me.  Indeed, the support of friends and family got me through my ordeals.  The cards strategically range from sentimental to humorous and arrived from close relatives, as well as distant acquaintances.  Visually, this frame juxtaposes elephants and kittens, a cartoon image of Dr. Phil, a crayon-drawn “You Go Girl” card, designed by my 5 and 3 year old nieces, fields with soaring clouds, gilded lily pads, and magical fairies.

Within the frame are photographs of me in a coma from the San Francisco hospital, as well as business cards and prescriptions from my doctors.  These medical images are juxtaposed with more happy photographs, especially of my wedding, which was my symbol of moving on and celebrating my life.  At the rehearsal dinner, my father presented to me a drawing of my imagined wedding, created by me as a child, a copy of which stands amongst the photographs of that reality in the collage.  There are also sketches that I did from magazine pictures when I existed in “my own private world” and drawings I later created on top of printed photographs, when the idea of creating a new, original drawing seemed overwhelming.  In one such example, I sketched in pink pen over a printed photograph I took of my prosthetic feet at the beach.  I call this photograph “There’s No Place Like the Beach,” with reference to the Wizard of Oz (because of my Dorothy-esque sparkling red shoes).  The placement of this image in the collage recalls the wounded and bleeding feet in Frida Kahlo’s surrealistic self portrait What the Water Gave Me, 1938, in which fragmented images from her memory, history, and fantasy assemble and float in the water surrounding her body.  Frida Kahlo was impaired by a bus accident at the age of 18 and became a disabled artist who made brilliant, passionate paintings of her colorful life and many body experiences.  Kahlo has always been my favorite artist – my idol of sorts – and now I find yet another connection to her because of my accident.  I also placed in my collage a photograph of me as a child in a gymnastics class.  I pose exuberantly, with a huge smile on my face and my arms extended in the air, as I model a colorful leotard that frames my short legs.  I included this image because I remember how early in life, I was very active and encouraged to be so by my doctors; physical activity was a form of therapy for me.  I now work with a physical therapist, Abby, who has become a friend and a personal trainer of sorts.  The prescription on my collage is for physical therapy, and the inclusion of visually disparate, yet contextually related images exemplifies a number of such juxtapositions in the collage.  Additional body images include “finger paintings” of my finger-free hands, which I smeared on the canvas.  One red hand sits on the edge of a page from my journal, in which I typed out Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Insomnia.”  My many sleepless nights now bring new meaning for me to an old favorite.

Although the collage is hardly a masterpiece in the conventional sense, it is an expression of my inner strength.  I put energy and frustration and confusion into it.  It composes a lot of raw, imperfect, random, and impulsive feelings.  In this way, it is therapeutic.”—by Dr. Ann Millett-Gallant