Gradient

Flaws

          I open my eyes to a Priest hovering over me, making the sign of the cross. He is giving me last rites. This can’t be, I think. I’m Jewish.


          Then all I see is a white light. I feel it slightly tugging my feet towards the calmness of vanishing. It would be comfortable and easy to surrender and slip into that void. Yet my mind fills with images that thwart the gentle slide out of my body. In a blurry bubble, I see large vague paintings I haven’t created yet.   


          A voice crashes in my head. You’re on fire, you’re hot, you’re unstoppable, blazing forward, a force no one can touch. I incorporate the power that could destroy me and decide to fight for my life.


          The flash of an overly bright light sears through the darkness behind my closed eyelids. I strain to open my eyes and see a man in a white coat with a surgical mask over his nose and mouth holding a camera. He pulls down the sheet with one hand exposing my charred body. The air brushes my skin like an attack of jellyfish. I hear the continual click of the camera and watch him snap pictures of my torso, leg, arm and neck. My body quivers with the effort to scream, “NO.” I am not a specimen. I am determined to live, and with that resolve, although I cannot move, I want to cover myself with a shredding shawl of vanity to prevent documentation of my devastated body. 


          I hear floating random phrases - “55% damage – lucky she’s alive” . . . “Arm burnt beyond repair. Amputate”. . .“Her mother says she’s a painter.” Where is my mother? I wonder. “She’s only thirty. Won’t have the will to live without her arm.” Is my arm really that damaged, I think, dizzy with panic. “I can sew it on.”


          I open my eyes and see a woman in her early forties a decade older than me, in a white coat with blond hair, a gentle smile on her beautiful, yet serious face. She stares at my eyes making sure I register what she is saying. “I’m Dr. Haher. I will save your arm.” Feeling buoyed, I will float and not drown. I know that as long as I am in her care I will be safe and pass out.


          Laying on a bed near a window, the northern exposure casts a soft consistent light on my corner of the room in the burn unit. White hanging curtains cloister the bed from the five others of which I am not yet aware. What I hear is the drip, drip, dripping, beep, beep, beeping and bubbling from the machines attached to my arms and throat. I can’t move. I look down to see a gauze-covered cocoon encase my body. Blood and puss ooze through the layers of wrapped bandages. Guardrails enclose my bed like a giant crib. My mother is sitting next to it. The furrows on her forehead deepen as she studies me. Her large dark eyes behind her glasses are swimming in tears. This scares me even more. When she notices I am awake, she strokes my cheek and forces a smile.


          “I’m hot. I can’t stand the burning pain,” I gasp. She gently places a cool washcloth on my forehead. Though the relief lasts just a few minutes, I will feel her comforting touch for the rest of my life. Her body leaning over me lessens the desperation and intense throbbing heat that claims me. “Mommy, please don’t leave,” I cry as the nurse she has summoned increases the morphine drip and I become numb. I hear her voice, which sounds far away answer, “I won’t.” 


          In my mind, I travel from the hospital bed with the gurgling of machines that will save my life, into the past of being twenty-five, pretty and in love on Jose’s fishing boat, free twelve miles out at sea where no laws prevail; the salty wind moistening my face and whipping back my long hair flying like a mast.  


          When the lurking fear of not knowing how my life will be over takes my mind, I can hardly breathe.  My breath is fast and shallow not moving below my throat. In that moment, I instinctively know that the only way I can get through this is to make art of the horror - a film (although I’ve never made one) of this day of burning, recreating it as the director, not the protagonist. With that consoling thought, I drift off.


***   


          My body twitches when I hear the cries, shouts and moans from the patients in the other beds. Their pain amplifies my own. The hushed conversations of the hospital staff, the humming cacophony of all the machines in the room make me anxious and I can’t sleep. My mind relives the earlier part of the day. I automatically had turned on the flame after placing a blue kettle of water on the stove, and distractedly removed it when the water gurgled. Suddenly my arm felt warm, then hot. I smelled something burning, a mixture of barbeque and melting plastic. The pungent smell was close. Very close. I looked for the source. It was me! Orange flames dangled from the wide sleeve of my chenille sweater. For a moment, I stared at my arm in disbelief as if it were a separate entity. Yet, I felt the extreme heat. I am on fire! I AM ON FIRE. I AM ON FIRE my mind shouted. Panicked I couldn’t breathe. So scared, I couldn’t move. My brain froze. Hot ice. Time stopped. A statue, I watched the flame for a second. A spark bounced through the air and landed on the cuff at my ankle. My arm stung as if attacked by thousands of bees. The piercing pain spread, every nerve buzzing, my brain reconnected. Trembling, I dashed to my front door and run through the hallway screaming for help. In motion, I heard the sizzle of my flesh and clothes, smelled my singed hair and smoked skin. The flames spread. Their glow lit the dark landing.


          My neighbor Tony rushed down the stairs. He rapidly ripped off my clothes and swatted me with a rough blanket. Large pieces of cloth glued to my body as if holding me together. Vibrating with my own shrill cries, they combined with the whirling of sirens. It was a flash in time. It was forever. 


          The only other patient I actually saw was a little girl in the bed next to me. I heard a nurse say that someone dunked her in scalding water. I gasped when I saw her small red body brought in and gently placed on a bed. For the first time I felt sorrier for someone else rather than myself. From then on the drapes between our beds were drawn. I heard her continual whimpering. One day the sound stopped. The staff removed the machines on the other side of the curtain and her mother’s cries grew fainter as the sound of her heavy footsteps became silent. The little girl was dead. I rang for the nurse to bring the bed -pan and vomited. It was tangible proof not everyone leaves the burn unit alive.
 

***


          I measure time by being awake - hospital time, or sedated, when my mind goes back to the parts of my life that feel safe or exciting. The morphine creates a hazy barrier from the pain. Airborne like a fly, I hover above my body flitting back and forth between past and present, blending disjointed time and events.                                          


          When the nurse approaches my bed to increase the morphine level, I know she will wheel me into the debriding room. After a soak in an antiseptic tub, I am placed on a sterilized metal table under bright lights while her tiny scissors and tweezers, like a bird’s beak, prick, pick, snip away the scarlet burnt skin, like raw meat, cutting it from sections of my body. The fire had moved on a sloppy diagonal path starting from my right arm across the front and back of my torso and neck to my left leg. I howl.  


***
 

          Back in my bed, the young resident with a bow tie hovers over my bared nakedness. He scrutinizes the freshly exposed areas and orders betadine. Before the morphine’s wave of dullness takes effect, I feel humiliation coupled with the pain. This gorgeous doctor is examining my grotesqueness. Would someone as handsome as he or any man ever find me desirable again? I long for the time my body was my tool of attraction. He wraps my wounds as if I was a fragile package. I wonder if he would have been attracted to me when I worked my way through art school as an artist model.


          “Feeling down, again?” the nurse says, holding the needle and drip bag. “But you’re so popular. Every day, this really cute guy comes to see you.”


          “He’s my brother.” 
 

***

          I close my eyes and remember visiting Jimmy in 1978 in New York.  With a few exhibits, including a self-portrait in a group show, under my belt, I started dreaming of the Big Apple. Something extraordinary was hatching there, the city was dangling promises of fame and I wanted to be a part of it. I went back for a visit. 


          “It’s Halloween and we need outrageous costumes so we can get into Studio 54,” Jimmy said. “We” included his boyfriend Jacques and his law partner Neal. “You’re the artist, any ideas?” he asked me. Inspired by the recent first successful test tube baby I suggested we go as a new kind of family. I dressed Jimmy in a sports jacket, matching polka dot shirt, baseball cap and sunglasses as famo-father/mother. Jacques, mofa-mother/father wore a tight knee length dress stuffed with onions as breasts and a rainbow afro. I carefully applied his makeup. Towering inches above six feet, Neal found heels, a nurse’s dress and cap, and wore a Groucho Marx mask. I was the baby in a transparent plastic jacket that reached mid-thigh, white baby bib, cloth diaper, and a rubber nipple pacifier around my neck. As a moving ensemble, not only did we waltz into Studio 54, Andy Warhol followed us around and took our picture. We danced through the night. A naked man and woman rode through the club on a white horse. Bianca Jagger held court.


          I visited SoHo Galleries during the day; the streets lined with potential. When I returned to California, I made plans to move. I was going home.
 

***

          I feel movement next to my bed and hear Jimmy call my name. He takes my hand. “I was just thinking about when you came back to New York and lived with Jacques and me before you got your loft,” he says. I’m woozy. The morphine takes me back to my first few months in Tribeca and hear Jimmy say, “It’s unbelievable. You’ve only been here two months from mellow Marin and already scored a great loft, and a gallery uptown to show your work. By next week you’ll meet your husband.” 


          “Not a chance,” I laughed, lighting an unfiltered Camel with his. “I’m married to my art.”  We sat at the orange kitchen counter in his loft. Jacques was preparing dinner. “Let me do something,” I volunteered, taking the placemats, flat ware and plates to the table across the room.  

          “Merci,” Jacques said. Thanks to them, I had a coterie of beautiful, fun, gay friends. Little did we know that in fifteen years my brother and these friends would be gone.

          But then Jimmy really squeezes my hand. He’s been sitting next to my hospital bed. When I open my eyes, he kisses my forehead and leaves.


***

         

          Back in my morphine dream, I saw my studio, a converted Church, in Mill Valley, California, where I completed my first series of paintings. I shared the ground floor with a roommate. The big room, which had been the sanctuary, with its high ceiling and gigantic front wall of leaded pane glass windows, facing the leafy trees, was mine. Hanging white parachutes cordoned off a corner of the room housing my bed and a flea market antique dresser.


          I immersed myself in painting images of large segments of parachutes late into the night. Creating those paintings, I learned how to connect emotions and abstract thoughts through a visual continuity, finding a language through color, composition, and the metaphor of parachutes blurring and obscuring what lay behind them. The pleasure of mixing the tactile paints into the consistency of cake frosting was foreplay before brushing them onto my complexly shrouded world on the canvas, mesmerized by the challenge of creating the illusion of their silky texture. I applied the buttery white and pale oils hyper-realistically depicting parts of the sensual creases billowing in different patterns, hinting at someone behind them. While I was painting I felt at home in myself.


          Now soft wrapped gauze binds and renders me immobile, trapped, and tightly tucked under white sheets, no longer free to create worlds on canvas or live outside the burn unit.


***          

          As she leans over the rails of the hospital bed to smooth my hair, I think about how my mother has always been there even when I thought I didn’t want her to be. When I went to California to avoid having a life that remotely resembled hers, she sent me missives of love and encouragement. She wanted me to be educated and adventurous, to live the way she might have if she hadn’t married at nineteen, assuming the protective identity of wife and mother. Of course, it was a different time and I was not her so I never led her imagined alternate fantasy.  


***

          After three months in the burn unit, I went to live with my parents because I couldn’t tend to my wounds, dress myself or prepare food. I had lived on my own for seventeen years and then became a helpless child in their house which they moved to after I left for college. I cringed from embarrassment when my mother carefully sponged my raw back in the shower before asking her to leave the bathroom so I could continue washing the rest of my body. The water on my red skin stung as the scabs peeled off and vanished down the drain. I didn’t wear my contact lenses in the shower. Any more clarity other than my blurry image would have been intolerable. I wrapped myself in a soft towel. Mom waited in “my” room.


          I took a deep breath before exposing myself again when she applied the ointments and gauze to the parts of my body I couldn’t reach due to the lack of mobility of my mangled right arm. I was grateful for her tender competence but hated feeling helpless.


          I had to rebuild my muscles to regain use of the arm with which I painted. As an outpatient, I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital five days week. 


          The therapists chatted amongst themselves as I exercised on machines that reminded me of the ones I painted in my “Man/Machine” series before the accident. I thought about my opening of that exhibit while going through my exercises in occupational therapy. 6’ x 6’ paintings lined the gallery’s walls. I arrived early and had to lean against the doorframe for a moment until my dizziness passed. I feared people wouldn’t like the work or even show up. One canvas depicted massive thighs and a segment of a Nautilus machine between them. Another was a giant bicep with its elbow resting on the pad of the mechanism. Although my technique was hyper- realistic, by omitting the face and a good portion of the rest of the body, the paintings had an abstract quality and composition.   


          A real body builder in a Speedo stood on a platform in the middle of the room. Initially I thought it was a cheap publicity stunt by the gallery owners, giving the exhibit a sideshow quality. Then I realized that his presence contributed to the energy of the evening. In contrast to him and my paintings, I looked like a fragile bird. My cropped dark hair was spiked. I had methodically checked out every SoHo shop that I loved until I found a hand painted white wool short dress with splashes of reds, purples and blues. It clung to my body without being tight and made me feel sophisticated, sexy and arty. I splurged on a pair of purple high-heeled ankle boots. 


          The gallery filled quickly leaving people to linger outside creating a buzz. As I squeezed through the crowd, I heard snippets of conversation in the packed room. “Man becomes more like the machine he wrestles with.” “The impressionist palette is wonderfully ironic.” They’re actually getting it, I thought. The paintings are touching them. This was my moment.
         

          As an outpatient, I felt like another species compared to the therapists.  Yet they didn’t treat me as an alien. “You’re looking good today,”…“Let’s increase the weight.”…“One more rep. You’re getting stronger.” 


          I would have been happy to trade places with any of these women who were around my age. Each had the armor of a diamond on her left fourth finger, which came with a man to buffer her against the world. As I went through my paces, I wondered if I would ever have a husband to run interference for me. Not that I thought I wanted one or needed one before the accident. Would I ever want anyone to see my body? Would I ever have a man who found me attractive and wanted to share a life? Would I have the physical and emotional strength to do meaningful work that made me happy as the work these therapists had? I was a voyeur to people who enjoyed their lives – lives I never would have previously wanted. I surprised myself at my mundane desires compared to my past aspirations of making it in the art world. Yet, also realized it was ridiculous to label a life mundane if it was fulfilling. All I really wanted was unlimited options.


          My exhaustion made me feel like silly putty inside, though I moved like a wind up doll running out of batteries. I used to have the fluidity of a dancer. Now the stiffness of my own shadow shocked me. After occupational therapy, I entered a small, too brightly fluorescent-lighted room. Terry, my jovial physical therapist, in a white doctor’s coat that strained against her broadness, stretched me while I laid on a sheet-covered mat on the floor. She used all her weight exerting extra pressure on my right side. Terry pulled my legs to the right and instructed me to move my torso and head to the left, an unfathomable goal due to the scar that descended from my neck to my right shoulder. Then she moved me in the opposite direction wringing me out like a rag. I thought how easily I did this yoga stretch before the fire, how good it felt then, how hard it was now. After a few months, I brought my camera to therapy, visualizing a series of self-portraits I would paint in the future when I could use my arm again.


***

          My parents’ doorbell rang. Aunt Sylvia, a widow in her sixties, decked out in her diamonds, Elizabeth Taylor style black wig, Cleopatra eye makeup and designer clothes, bustled in toting a shopping bag. 


          “Darling you must have had quite a day,” she said as she grabbed my hand. “I see you’re wearing the whatcha-ma-call-it.”


          “Jobst,” I said, sitting stiffly in the den. My mother and I had just returned from a fitting for full body scar compression garments. The top piece, a long sleeved “jacket” covering my torso, from my hips to under my chin, had round circular cups, demarcated with zigzag stitching, for my breasts. It zipped up the front. If only it were leather it would have an S&M coolness, but I was the opposite of a dominatrix – my scarred skin looked flayed by a brutal whipping.
 

          The bottom half was a combination legging and girdle. It took an arduous half hour as I inched it up to my waist, wrinkle by wrinkle. The gloves, two sizes smaller than my usual size 7, were essential in flattening the ridges on my fingers and back of hand. The fourth piece was a little cap with a strap on each side that attached together with Velcro under my chin. The tighter the pressure, the flatter the scars along my jawline leading to my neck would become.


          “You’ve got to try on these things. It’ll perk you right up.” My favorite aunt pulled one silk garment out of her bag after another. Her closets were legendary. Some clothes still had their sales labels. Sylvia, whose preferred color was blue, especially turquoise, was a couple of sizes larger than I so I found myself swimming in a sea of silk, cotton and linen blouses, skirts and scarves. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror wearing my new wardrobe. Without Aunt Sylvia’s enthusiasm, I would have felt like a clown instead of the camouflage queen she was helping me to become, hiding everything except my face.


          “Brah-----na” she cooed, “that color is fabulous on you. It makes you come alive. Aren’t I right? The polka dot scarf can be your trademark.” Her black eyeliner crinkling in a familiar smile, made me think maybe I looked ok. I trusted her.  


          I tested out my new look on a steamy summer day, a loose cotton skirt, top and hat to cover the Jobst. I couldn’t tolerate the heat while waiting outside a restaurant for a friend; my first trip to a cafe alone since the fire. Around me, people wore tees and shorts. I opened the door, delighting in the cold blast of air conditioning. Sitting in a cushioned booth, the waiter approached. I ordered a strawberry daiquiri. 


          “Can you pay for it?” he asked.


          “Why would I order something I couldn’t pay for?”  I said


          “You look like a homeless person, wearing all those clothes,” he answered. I ran out in tears and didn’t go to a restaurant again for months unless buffered by friends or relatives. 
 

***
 

          Eventually, the daily routine and the isolation from anyone who didn’t have to do with the repair of my body began to depress me. I wanted to participate in the world besides going to the hospital daily, as a work in progress. I applied to an art therapy program at the New School across the street from St. Vincent’s Hospital, while still living at my parents’ house. The admission requirements were to show the instructor Dr. Erika Steinberger, an impressive, tall, blond woman with a big brain and low cut blouse, slides of my art. I showed her the ‘Man/Machine” series. 
 

          “How interesting that before the accident you painted fragments of bodies,” she said, in a German accent pointing to the painting of a chest and arms pulling the bicep machine. “I especially think this one is a remarkable premonition of what was to come because the colors and surface of the skin are so unnatural.” I wondered how she knew about my skin’s surface and colors. After all, I was wearing my signature scarf and camouflage clothes.  


          After hours of my own therapy stretching and contorting my body I attended class, scarf dramatically wrapped around my neck, grateful the other students were strangers. Humbled by the fire and inspired by the physical therapists dedicated to my recovery, I wanted to heal other people as well as myself.  
 

          At night in my bedroom in my parents’ house, I read Jung, Freud and Edith Kramer, for the class. We were required to make drawings or watercolors. I couldn’t control a brush, water and paint yet. I gingerly picked up a colored pencil. My hand was not very flexible in holding something so narrow. The lines I made were tentative and tended to waver. After many attempts, my fingers were finally strong enough to create perceptible images. Although the drawings were somewhat child like I fulfilled the assignments. I knew I would draw again. I had an inkling of my familiar self.  
 

          As the class progressed, our project was to draw self-portraits. Easy I thought. Now I was in familiar territory. What emerged was a semblance of me in a hospital gown looking lost and about thirteen, with a blue scarf around my neck.
 

          In the classroom, we exchanged portraits with the person sitting across from us at the long table and then moved next to them. The woman across from me appeared to be in her late fifties. Her face sagged with lack of expression. She wasn’t wearing make-up and her hair hung limply. I wouldn’t have noticed her if I hadn’t been instructed to interact with her.   The self-portrait showed a beautiful younger woman with the same blond hair and features. Her parted red lips smiled seductively, her dark eyes sparkled with amusement,  pink glow covered her cheeks. “What makes you feel so beautiful?” I asked, hoping not to be too bold. “Lounge singing,” she said. “I loved singing my heart out for years in those smoky clubs, sipping cocktails, all eyes on me. Then, I stopped to take care of my mom. She’s old and needs me.” “Can’t you do both?” I asked. “I have to,” she said. “I’ve become numb inside because I stopped.” I told her I’d love to hear her sing and she scatted, diddly oop bop shabam she boo be yap softly in my ear. When she stopped, she looked like her self-portrait.
 

          After a semester, the next phase of the training was to do an art therapy residency. Mine was at New York Hospital while still an outpatient at St. Vincent’s. I was nervous but determined not to be the one who needed fixing. I wore my turquoise blouse with matching scarf wrapped around my neck and long pants covering my Jobst, as I sat beside the patient. Adopting the lilt of Terry’s voice as my own, I said, “How are you feeling today sweetie?”


          “Eh, I wish I could get out of here.”
         

          “I’m going to take you on a little vacation right now. Are you ready?” I held up the crayons and paper.


          “What do you mean? I can’t draw a straight line. Just leave me alone. I don’t feel well.” She closed her eyes, clutching the cover under her chin and turned her head away from me.


          “Trust me,” I said. I leaned over the bed and put my hand over hers.    “Relax. Take a deep breath through your nose letting it fill your belly and release it.” She pretended I wasn’t there. I rubbed her hand. She was with me. “Think of a place you’ve been to that you love – how it looked, how the air felt on your skin, the smells. Are you there now? Is anyone with you?” I waited for a nod. “Okay open your eyes but keep that picture in your mind.” 


          I handed her the art supplies. “Now draw what it feels like to be there.” She covered the page with swirling blue shapes interspersed with little silver stars and put down the art supplies.


          “What do you think?” she asked.


          “Fantastic. Is this any particular time or place?”
 

          She smiled and said, “It’s the night I met my husband, may he rest in peace. Thank you honey. I’m gonna get some sleep now.” 


          I left the room having grown about an inch. With her thank you and smile still in my head, I forgot about my wounds.


          I entered the office of an administrator to report on the session and noticed her staring at the Jobst on my hands. “I see you’ve been burned,” she says. “You must have been through a tremendous ordeal. I doubt if you could survive another one.” She zapped me into feeling like a helpless victim. I wanted to crawl into the nearest empty bed. 
 

          I’d become obsessed with the intimate knowledge of how life can change drastically in a flash and was drawn to people who had that experience. I saw other people’s flaws as the most interesting parts of their faces and bodies. Mental and physical wounds were what moved and inspired me, but I still couldn’t accept them in myself. Pema Chodrin an American Buddhist nun and author of When Things Fall Apart and More wrote, “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.”  


          I was eager to use my new skills as an art therapist. Hospital Audiences sent me to senior centers and facilities for the mentally ill, physically disabled, and seriously sick children, part time jobs in the far reaches of all five boroughs of New York City.


          These experiences led to a year-long job at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. I was part of a team - psychiatrist, pediatrician, psychologist, social workers and dance therapist. As an art therapist I occupied the lowest rung on the therapeutic ladder and was referred to as the arty scarf lady. We worked with abused children from infants to six-year-olds and their mothers, who neglected them, abused them or didn’t prevent other people they knew from doing so. The court mandated the mothers to participate or else they would lose their children. The team’s diagnosis about the kids was that they had severe developmental delays, some mentally handicapped.   Through simple art projects, I contributed my informational piece about each family and child. In my mind, I thought that perhaps this extreme trauma presented itself as delays because these children were so young and didn’t have the skills to cope with what happened. Maybe I could reach them.


          I cherished my time alone with the kids. Part of me identified with them being victims of circumstances beyond their control. I wanted to help minimize their trauma. It turned out that the act of being their guide helped minimize my own. Keisha, a four-year old girl raped by her uncle, crept into my heart the most. No one ever heard her speak. The doctors diagnosed her as intellectually disabled. When I met Keisha she looked terrified. In her, I saw myself as also having been through something horrific and not having a voice to communicate the unimaginably terrible experience that had replaced a piece of myself. No one at this job knew that I always wore a scarf around my neck to hide the blazing red scars beneath it nor about the fire.


          I sat on the floor in front of Keisha. I reached for her hand. Pointing to the carpet, I asked her to join me. She sat down. I gently held her little shoulders, smiled and put all my attention into her brown eyes. When she held my gaze, I picked up a card painted red and repeatedly said “red.” Then I pointed to her shoes and red dress and said “red.” I pointed to the parts of my plaid blouse that were red and repeated the color. She followed my gaze silently.   
 

          Each session I added another color card - blue, green, orange, yellow and purple backed up by pointing to and naming the colored objects in the room. I gave her paints. She was totally absorbed but mute. Her tongue traced her upper lip in concentration as she painted. Her eyes were alive and she had good control of the brush.


          On our sixth session, Keisha gingerly walked into the room. When she spotted me, she ran towards me with a big smile and hugged my waist. She pointed to a circle on the blue polka dot scarf around my neck. “Blue,” she said. It was the first time she had uttered a word. I squeezed her tight, screaming “YES!” She pointed to the blue crayon on the table and said “blue” again. I took off my scarf and asked her if she would like it. “Yes,” she said and I tied it around her waist.


          Later, at the weekly staff meeting, I recounted Keisha’s progress.  “The best part is she SAID blue,” I announced. “My experience with that little girl has been one of a scared traumatized child raped before she was two; not someone who is hopelessly disabled.” I desperately wanted them to reconsider their diagnosis. What did I really uncover? I needed Keisha to be ok. I knew if she moved away from her trauma by speaking, I would be able to do the same with mine as an artist and art therapist. 


          “She’s totally different than when I met her. When she feels safe and engaged in something she likes, she expresses herself. SHE SPOKE FOR THE FIRST TIME,” I emphasized to my colleagues. It was the first time since I was burned, I was confident in myself even if they didn’t agree. I was on the verge of discovering more about my own capabilities as an art therapist and as an advocate. Continuing my presentation I felt my heart expanding, a physical softening in my chest. I played a part in this child taking a giant leap out of her fear. I believed that I had witnessed a miracle. My face flushed.   


          The psychiatrist said, “We’re glad she responds to making art with you but that doesn’t change our diagnosis… By the way, you’re not wearing a scarf.”


          “I know,” I smiled, my fingers ever so briefly caressing my mangled neck. I realized that when you’re detached from your appearance you become more focused on what you do than how you look doing it.   


***

          Back in my loft, I made large messy paintings. I would never be able to straighten my arm, reach above my head, do traditional yoga moves or countless other things I had taken for granted. Nor would I want to expose my limb’s hideousness or the rest of my waffled skin by wearing short or sleeveless tops. Yet I learned to adapt. My body screamed wham, wham alive with the straining of my muscles and tendons. I threw the paint Jackson Pollack style, swinging my arm, pushing my range of motion; mixed huge amounts of greens and purples in large containers sweeping the canvas with my big scenic brushes. Adding linseed oil and turpentine, the colors bled into each other. I dribbled small amounts of white onto the canvas and watched the paint puddle, then pulled strands of it through the puddles. This created surfaces that looked like marble, sort of resembling my skin except for the color. I then painted trompe l’oeil doors or windows over the surface. Through those portals, I depicted people who were in the midst of a seminal moment of change, such as a man with a bulge in his jacket approaching a woman in a room. Anything could occur. Although the thought of the fragility and precariousness of life always lingered, I was beginning to feel control of my world.

Published by The Plentitudes.  July 2021.  

Sherman, Man-Machine Series.jpg

Painting: "Sherman," Man/Machine Series, by Brahna Yassky