Ann Millett-Gallant’s art and writing

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Ann Millett-Gallant is no stranger to this blog. I’ve shared her work several times, especially her memoir Re-Membering, which explores her experiences with TBI and art. I want to make sure you also soak in her visual art. She paints a lot of cats and flowers, so it’s not the least bit shocking why I’m in love with her paintings. They’re vibrant, beautiful, and often whimsical. A stylized red, white, gray, and black classic tabby cat sits on his rump with back legs extended, leans over, and stares intently at his tail in focused stillness.

In putting this together, I realized I’ve been remiss. I’ve promised a review of her memoir and never written it. So in addition to pointing you to Ann’s art, I really wanted to take you inside her book as well.

Re-Membering: Putting Mind and Body Back Together Following Traumatic Brain Injury is unique and as much an exploration of her life as it is meditations on how a collage can be the ideal form of expression in the midst of a TBI where thoughts are jumbled and fragmented. Having been born with physical impairments, Ann has a lifetime of experience navigating an inaccessible world. The book opens on the moment of sustaining a nearly-fatal TBI, when she doesn’t just lose the vacation she was on at the time. She writes that she lost her history, her savings, and her mind.

Part of how we figure out who we are is to tell stories about ourselves and pay attention to what comes up. Rather than try to weave narratives from her TBI recovery into a tidy package, she allows her thoughts to flow and bump into each other in the book in a way that mirrors how life felt then. Because Ann’s an artist she used drawing, painting, writing, and collage to work through her experiences. And because she’s also an art historian, she has an incredibly engaging way of analyzing her own art. Ann is a museum docent in this book, pausing from her own storytelling at times to fill the reader in on technical information about the brain, quoting other survivors who can help the reader make sense of Ann’s story, and bringing in other disabled artists.

Nearly all of the TBI-related stories and media I’ve seen focus on people who didn’t identify as disabled before the injury. Some are filled with a dramatic process of figuring out what it means to suddenly experience their first disability. On top of impairment, people now face an unexpected loss of social status and disability stigma. It’s often a shock for previously non-disabled people, and at times, memoirs of new disability fall into unexamined ableist tropes as people work through what it means to be disabled but not “disabled like that.” That doesn’t happen in Ann’s book. Here’s a self-portrait of her criper-cising on her Bosu balance ball, which many people who’ve been through Physical Therapy have spent time with.Ann lying nude on her side on a Bosu balance ball. She is painted in fluid strokes of red, orange, and yellow with arms and legs dynamically outstretched. She is anonymous with no facial features. You can see one arm and one leg are amputated, and the other arm and leg extend past the edges of the painting.

Ann writes about the tension of her youth and wanting her mom to let her gain her independence and practice her fierceness as a child with physical disabilities. After the TBI, her mom slid back into a care-providing role, which had some familiarity to both of them. I think this narrative could be so valuable for other peers with TBI and for parents and family caregivers who struggle with caregiving an adult who wasn’t disabled as a child. Because truly, those of us who acquire disabilities later in life would do well to spend more time with the stories of people who’ve been at this for their whole lives. Ann’s description of her father’s reaction to her situation is equally powerful, as she recounts not only how she felt interacting with him then but how she reflects back on his anguish in a different way, now that years have passed. Like everything in the book, the family relationships aren’t black and white, but they are, like a collage, simultaneously jarring and fluid.

Even though she offers a lot of art history here for a memoir, her writing is never off-puttingly academic. Her humor comes through in places like making a collage out of lists, where one list in the image encourages her to make a collage and another is a post-TBI reminder to make more lists. And I think readers will truly enjoy the way she affirms disability identity, disability pride, and crip beauty throughout the book. If you’re curious about art therapy, she beautifully describes her experiences with the process of creating art to diffuse energy and anxiety. And the art-making process also encouraged her to relate to her senses and her emotions in different ways, especially as she dealt with a lot of emotional struggles, memory loss, and the emotional struggle around having TBI-related memory loss. Just as her recovery wasn’t always linear, her art-making wasn’t. Sometimes it was planful and controlled, and sometimes an artistic mistake led to a sudden discovery of a creative way to problem-solve, which led to an unexpected masterpiece.

Reading Ann’s memoir is especially poignant if you love her paintings of cats, flowers, and still life as much as I do. Here’s one. Thick, textured acrylic painting from above. A gray striped cat leans its head toward a frilly sunflower, its seeds a bright, orange spiral in the center.Because in the final chapter of her book, she reveals what those images symbolize, and I simply can’t give it away. You should get the book. Throughout the book are pictures of her artwork, including some collages. As you near the end, and Ann has gone through all of her most significant and grueling rehab and therapies, she presents you with the greatest symbol of integrating her body and mind: a collage made of her collages.

Ann is clear in her gratitude for the people and things that contributed to her successes in life after TBI. This includes her access to healthcare, supportive people around her. Being white and a US citizen plays a massive role too in affording her the position to have all these incredible resources and to be accepted as a scholar, academic, and artist in the ways that she is. In addition to the peers and artists who she wrote this book for, I think doctors and therapists would get tremendous value from the book, especially those interested in uncovering how they can better respect clients and patients as experts in their own lives and experiences. If you want to immerse yourself in the creative process of art and the creative process of living with brain injury, this is your book. Also, cats and flowers.

You can find her writing and visual arts all in one place, at AnnMG.com