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Monday, June 8, 2009

Lost and Found?

Lost. And Found?
By Ann Millett-Gallant

**Megan's Note: Check out Ann's latest article in RDS about the photography of Ricardo Gil at

A few years ago, 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 cafĂ© 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, which 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. I was content to rarely leave my sanctuary.
In a couple of 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.
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 of art as 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 to write this essay by the course. My collage predated this essay and proves to embody and personify many themes of my experiences during my accident and its legacy. The title of the collage, “Re-Membering,” refers to the ongoing process of synthesizing the past and present, as well as processes of emotional, intellectual, and corporeal metamorphosis?
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, relating part-to-part without an overarching narrative. It is both a jumble and a medley.
Framing the canvas is a selection of get well cards, chosen from a countless stack that 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 to distant acquaintances. Visually, this frame juxtaposes elephants and kittens, a cartoon image of Dr. Phil, a crayon-drawn “You Go Girl,” 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 business cards for my doctor and prescriptions. 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 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 has always been my favorite artist - my idol of sorts - and now I find yet another connection to her because of my accident. Additional body images in my collage 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.
The collage is hardly a masterpiece in the conventional sense. But that is its 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.


Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. New York: Penguin Press, 2005.