Tag Archives: disability

Re-Membering

by Ann Millett-Gallant

Re-Membering coverI began teaching for the BLS Program in Spring 2007.  I taught my “Photography: Contexts and Illusions” class and was developing another BLS course, “The Art of Life,” as well as an Introduction to Art class.  I was supposed to begin teaching full time the next Fall, but life interfered.  While traveling with a friend in San Francisco in May, I had an accident and suffered from traumatic brain injury.  I did teach Photography again Fall of 2007, but it would be another year before I could resume all my teaching.

Bob Hansen was kind enough to cover my “Art of Life” course for me until the Fall of 2008.  When I first began teaching it, it was all new to me, because my accident had caused significant memory loss.  I did not recall how the class was conceived or why I chose the specific examples and readings for it.  However, I felt an eerie sense of fate or destiny teaching a course based on the idea that art emerges from everyday life, and that specifically art may be considered, ultimately, as an accident.  Much of the subject matter of the course surrounds how accidents can lead to insight and inspiration, and I began teaching it while I was still struggling with the physical and psychological effects of my accident.  One of the writing assignments my students had to complete was an essay on the theme of loss and discovery, which resonated with a lot of what I was going through – dealing with my own losses (of identity, memory, time, etc.), as well as discovering new aspects of myself.  I felt inspired to write a response to my own assignment about my accident and its effects on my life, both its consequential losses as well as its discoveries.  This is the essay I now post each semester that I teach the course:

For most 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 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 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, 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, and began to re-member – to put mind and body back together.  Yet, I was content to rarely leave my sanctuary.

"Self-Portrait with Hemicraniectomy," 2011

“Self-Portrait with Hemicraniectomy,” 2011

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 which 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…I have been physically disabled since birth, and I have incorporated disability studies as a discipline, as well as my identity as a disabled woman, into my teaching and writing.  I know how to teach myself to do things and how to adapt to do anything I want to do.  I am (was?) independent.  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 is still, and may always be, unbearable.  I can’t sleep through the night, my moods oscillate from high to low without warning, and I can’t remember 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 many, 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.

Art Therapy Collage, 2010

Art Therapy Collage, 2010

The responses of the students to my essay were ones of admiration, respect, and identification.  Many shared with me similar experiences of their own or of others they knew.  I believe students also felt more open with me and shared more of themselves with me and with fellow students in their writing.  They also encouraged me to write more.  I did.  Over the next few years, I drafted four more essays or chapters about my experiences in hospitals and with multiple channels of recovery, including physical, craniosacral, and art therapies.  Eventually, I had a book – a memoir that incorporated research as well as personal narrative.  The structure and range of subjects in the book, I felt, echoed how my brain works; in it, I switch between various subjects of interest to me and forms of writing, I go off on tangents, and often I compose text from fragments of information and memory.

Once I felt the book was nearly completed, I submitted proposals to publishers and got many respectful and complimentary rejections, as I was repeatedly told that they simply did not publish memoirs.  I wanted to see my work assembled and distributed, to complete the project so that I could share my story with others, and to perhaps provide them with hope.  I chose to self-publish with CreateSpace through Amazon.com.

Here is a link to its listing.

I did all the formatting of the manuscript myself, which was, admittedly, a pain; I hired my sister who was a journalist to edit; and I paid a professional to design a cover.  I am proud of the project and hope readers of this blog will be interested in it.  It really epitomizes the intersections between art and life, as well as the various intersections between life and online education.

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer

Dr. Millett-Gallant at her computer

Life Becomes Art: Modeling for Joel-Peter Witkin

by Ann Millett-Gallant

Joel-Peter Witkin, "Retablo (New Mexico)" (2007)

Joel-Peter Witkin, “Retablo (New Mexico)” (2007).

In 2010, I published my first book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.  In it, I analyze the artworks of contemporary disabled artists, many of which are self-portraits and performance, in comparison with images of disabled bodies by non-disabled, contemporary artists.  I also place such contemporary work in comparison with images from the history of body displays in art and visual culture, such as fine art painting, medical photographs, freakshow displays, documentary photographs, and popular culture.  I was very proud when the book was called the first to cross the disciplines of art history with disability studies and am happy that it has been adopted as required reading for courses on a variety of subjects related to visual culture, disability studies, and cultural studies.

Joel-Peter Witkin, "First Casting for Milo" (2005), as used for the cover of The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

Joel-Peter Witkin, “First Casting for Milo” (2005), as used for the cover of Ann Millett-Gallant’s book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

The book overlaps with subjects of many of my online courses at UNCG.  In it, I discuss the work of Frida Kahlo, which, although it precedes the time period on which the book focuses, set much precedence for the self-portrait and performative work of contemporary disabled, as well as many non-disabled, women artists.  We discuss such work in my online Art 100 course in a unit about feminist art and notions of arts and crafts.  Much of the artwork I analyze in my book is photography, which relates directly to my BLS course: Photography: Contexts and Illusions.  I also discuss performance, which is a major subject of my BLS course: Representing Women, as well as The Art of Life.  The Art of Life course focuses on the intersections between art and everyday life in a variety of ways, which is also a theme of this book.  In all three of these BLS classes, we debate the implications of self-display on the part of artists.  I delivered a talk about my book for the art department of UNCG in Fall of 2010 and again at the Multicultural Resource Center in Fall of 2012.  At both meetings I received a lot of interested feedback and compelling questions, as well as generous praise.  I am interested in teaching an online course centered on the subjects of my book in the future.

Frida Kahlo in 1931

Frida Kahlo in 1931, six years after the bus accident that left her in lifelong pain.

The subject matter of this book has proved to be personal to me in more ways than one, and in some ways unexpected.  I have been physically disabled since birth, involved in studying and making art since childhood, and interested in bridging these subjects in my teaching and writing as an academic professional.  And there is more.  While researching the beginnings of this book in New York City in the Fall of 2004, I visited the Ricco Maresca Gallery for a Joel-Peter Witkin exhibit (examples of Witkin’s work may be viewed at the Catherine Edelman Gallery and the Etherton Gallery).

I viewed the gallery and met the photography curator, Sarah Hasted, who was as enthusiastic about Witkin’s controversial work as I was and was also a personal friend of his.  She thought that because of my interest in his work, knowledge of art history, experiences (personal and scholarly) with disability, and, above all, because of my body, Joel and I should meet and collaborate on a photograph.  I was eager to serve as his model.  I felt that while arguing that self-display for disabled people, as well as other individuals, can be a liberating personal and political act, I felt that I should have the experience, or in other words, I should put my body where my mouth was.  After much correspondence and many sketches later, in the Spring of 2007, I traveled to Albuquerque, NM to meet him and to become a performing agent in one of his tableaux.

WitkinSelf1995

Witkin self portrait (1995).

I wrote about my many experiences in my journal and later in my book.  The long weekend is now a blur, but I recall specific details: visiting with Witkin’s horses and dogs earlier on the day of the shoot; befriending his wife, Barbara; taking off my prosthesis and my clothes, yet feeling no embarrassment; being painted white to replicate the color of marble sculpture; and posing beside another nude model for different shots.  Covered in body paint, I almost felt costumed, and as time passed and I posed with other models and in front of photography professionals, I felt less self-conscious.  Being posed as an eye catching detail in the photograph, I felt picturesque.  I remember how Witkin would become animated: “That’s it!” he’d exclaim, with almost orgasmic excitement.  Yet it was all business for him.  He was creating his work, which was the source of his fiery pleasure, and we were actors playing roles.

The resulting photograph is titled Retablo (New Mexico) (2007), referencing Latin American, Catholic folk art traditions (and, for me, many self-portraits by Frida Kahlo).  The image was conceived when Witkin saw a retablo image featuring two lesbians embracing, wearing only thongs, and posing above the following retablo prayer:

San Sebastian, I offer you this retablo because Veronica agreed to come live with me. We are thankful to you for granting us this happiness without having to hide from society to have our relationship. Sylvia M. (translation)

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer.

Witkin’s photograph also contains this prayer and, of course, fabulist imagery.  It is based on this and other similar retablos, printed in France, of homosexuals giving thanks to God and to saints for graces received in their lives. In Witkin’s version, Duccio’s Christ resists Lucifer’s temptations after viewing the future of the world, which includes the tragedy of 9/11.  Witkin’s composition features a triumphant female nude figure as Vernocia, displaying her corporeal glory and gazing down at her lover, Sylvia, a seated nude figure (me), beside her.  We are staged on a pedestal covered in flowing drapery and in front of an elaborate backdrop, which includes a photograph of the same model in a characteristic St Sebastian pose and a painted, shadowed, and winged form confronting a hand of salvation.  An iconographic reminder of death and a warning symbol of righteousness, a skeleton, lounges comically on the left side of the scene.  I cannot logically explain the photograph, as it defies a central narrative.  It is far more sensory than sensible.  I have my back to the camera and am seated on my two shorted legs (one congenitally amputated above the knee and one below), as I extend my “deformed,” or here fabulist/fabulous arms.  The female figures are opposing in the positions – one flaunting the front of her nude body, the other much smaller and flaunting her back.  The two bodies complement one another and complete a disfigured, heavenly narrative. Witkin said he especially, aesthetically admired my back, which inspired the pose.  This seated figure that is me is magical and all-powerful; as viewers stare at my back, I stare back.  Like the other models in my book, I perform for my readers/viewers.  Life becomes art.  The photograph epitomizes the Art of Life for me.

Today, a print of the photograph hangs in my living room, while another image of Witkin’s graces the cover of my book, I refer to the photographer as Joel, and Paul, my companion on the trip who served as Joel’s assistant, is now my husband.

Adults Say the Damnedest Things

By Ann Millett-Gallant

Ann at UNCG

I am scholar who studies and teaches about representations of the body in visual culture.  I am the designer and instructor for 3 BLS courses: Art of Life, Photography: Context and Illusions, and Representing Women.  These classes include examples from fine art, film, television, advertisements, medical images, and so on, and in my own writing, I focus specifically on these representations of the visibly disabled body.  I also consider everyday social interaction as a form of visual culture.  As a woman with very noticeable physical disabilities, I know a lot about the stare.  And often for me, daily life can become a theater for performance.  At the Kroger near my house, I have been stared at, mainly by children; asked how long I have been disabled or what “happened” to me; told various stories about other disabled people; and told I am admired, because if the person speaking were “like” me, they wouldn’t want to leave the house.  Now, it’s always good to be called amazing, but it’s not so great when that term is based on low expectations for what I can and should so.   I always have to consider whether to use the moment as a teaching tool or whether to blow it off and not waste my time.  I like to respond to children, for example, by telling them I was “born this way,” or that I don’t have legs because I don’t need them.  I didn’t know how to respond when the cashier at CVS asked me how long I had been doing things for myself, as if implying the question “how long have you been out of the hospital?”  I wish I had had a better come back, but I just declared, “Since birth!”  Sometimes these moments amuse me, but sometimes they make me angry and sad.  Not so much sad about myself, but sad that disability has such a bad rap.

The other day, after I left the doctor’s office, I scooted across the parking lot to Rose’s discount department store.  I was happy to find 2 pairs of cute, inexpensive sunglasses, since recently it seemed that all my other cheap sunglasses had been breaking.  I thought I should call my husband to come to pick me up, but then I realized I had forgotten my cell phone.  I asked the woman at the checkout line if there was a phone nearby I could use, and I explained my predicament.  She responded that I better get a hold of him soon, because what if I were to get abducted.  I found this to be an odd response, because we were in a public space in a nice neighborhood.  I scowled and said in a joking tone that I wasn’t worried about that, but I just wanted to get home.  She then told me I should worry about that (being abducted), because “they go after all kinds of women.”  I scowled again, in more anger.  Was that supposed to be some sort of twisted compliment, that even though I was disabled, that I was still attractive to abductors?!  And in the first place, the fact that she was talking about me as being abducted meant she was classifying me as helpless, dependent, childlike, or somehow already vulnerable.  I don’t think all that people think before they speak, and certainly don’t realize the assumptions and stereotypes that are communicated through their utterances.  And, I realize their comments have much more to say about their own ignorance and insecurities than mine.

And all these interactions aren’t negative.  In some ways, I feel like a celebrity.  I stand out in a crowd, and I attract attention.  I do exchange many smiles and hellos with people around my usual haunts.  In some restaurants where my husband and I eat often, the wait staff may even remember what I want to order.  Sometimes the comradery is nice, yet at times, I wish I could remain incognito.  I’d love to hear from others who have these experiences.