The Unmasking Brain Injury project

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A while back, I found out about a project where veterans can decorate and paint masks to artistically represent their experiences of TBI and/or PTSD. The images can be haunting and difficult. But having TBI and/or PTSD can be haunting and difficult, to say the least. I think it’s valuable to provide artistic outlets for people. It doesn’t matter whether they use it for personal narrative, social critique, a political message, spiritual exploration, rehab, or what. What matters is it’s one thing to try to explain something deep and complex to someone through words. It’s another thing all together to show it with symbolism like colors, shapes, and pictures. It seems to open up something different. Words are symbols too, but we treat them less as symbols and more like pieces of truth or immutable reality.

I had a funny experience recently where I wrote something about myself, and someone kindly reflected back to me their experience of what I wrote. I could hardly believe it. What they told me couldn’t have been further from the “truth” I thought I was telling. But that happens all the time. I tell you something. You take in the words. Maybe without even realizing it, you start to relate my words to your own experiences and your memories and your own words. In taking in and reflecting back my story to me, you have accidentally made it your own. But when we use visual arts, it seems–at least in my tiny perspective–to not happen like that so much. I feel like sometimes we let a storyteller own their story more when it’s a piece of visual art. We seem somehow more accepting when they describe why they chose this image or that symbol to bring to life what’s in their mind. We seem somehow less apt to bulldoze them with “Oh yeah, me too, cuz this one time…” and then regale them with something we think is related to what they said even if they don’t feel like it is. Even though the story time was still supposed to belong to this other person. Even as they clench up in frustration that they were still talking, still letting you know something, still hoping that maybe you’d be willing to believe them if only you could stop making their story about you and your story. We all do it. I do it. People do it to me. It’s a hard habit to break. When we share a language, we find ourselves all sharing the same words and not always recognizing when those words combine to represent a completely unique thought that doesn’t actually relate to that one time you….But creating a piece of original art that no one has created before and then describing it? It seems safer. Seems like you own it more.

So the masks. The Unmasking Brain Injury project was started at the non-profit Hinds’ Feet Farm by Marty Foil, and it’s for the Farm’s members, not just veterans. Here’s how they describe it:

“There’s a story behind every mask and behind every mask there’s a person, a person that’s been touched by brain injury.

The project’s mission is to promote awareness of the prevalence of brain injury; to give survivors a voice and the means to educate others of what it’s like to live with a brain injury; to show others that persons living with a disability due to their brain injury are like anyone else, deserving of dignity, respect, compassion and the opportunity to prove their value as citizens in their respective communities.”

On the website, you can click on each picture of a mask. That takes you to a larger version of the mask picture, the name of the artist, and a brief explanation of some of the symbols they used. Maybe it’s that a certain color reminds them of something or someplace, or maybe it’s an image that represents their disappointments or frustrations. They write about what it means to them to be a brain injury survivor.

20 multi-colored, hand-decorated masks hang outside with a short story beneath each one.[Image Description: 20 multi-colored, hand-decorated masks hang outside with a short story beneath each one.]





They have a traveling exhibition that you can bring to your location by requesting a show on their website. You can also contribute a mask. From their homepage,, scroll down and down until you find a form called “Join the movement!”

Read more about Marty, his brother Philip who sustained a severe TBI, his family, and the philosophy behind Hinds’ Feet Farm on It was created in response to Philip’s brain injury and to how common it was for him to end up in care facilities where there was neglect, abuse, or no direction toward improving survivors’ lives. One of the many hopes is that the dynamic images and stories with each and every one of these masks will teach society how brain injury survivors remain valuable members of society who deserve to be treated with dignity and given opportunities. You know, like people. Treated like loved people.