Athletes of the Spirit:
An Exploration of Disability
through Art and Writing
30" x 22" $2,100.00
Lydia Gans, Age 60
Oakland, California, USA
The shape of the human pelvis has always
reminded me of a butterfly. When I teach
drawing, I ask my students to use the
butterfly shape as a memory aid for the
pelvis. I never would have guessed that
the butterfly would enter into my conscious-
ness for another reason. Yet it works as a
graceful playful transition in Lydia's life -
from the experience of losing consciousness
to the feelings of a newborn opening her
senses to life. While in Egypt, on one of her
many exotic trips, Lydia was partying with
a new friend who took her driving on a road
where they collided with an oncoming car. Her hip was crushed on the one side and she was struck unconscious. As with the caterpillar's transformation to a brighter, highly detailed insect, Lydia's sense of color and life's details became unusually keen as she mended from the accident.
Lydia smiled many times during our conversation, recalling all the emotional support she received and the trials she has successfully lived through since her accident. She welcomed all my inquiries and honestly conveyed her bittersweet feelings about her injury. My interview with her raised the question, when Lydia sees herself in a mirror, does she see herself as someone with a disability? She does walk differently than she did before the accident, yet often her different gait doesn't negatively affect her daily activities except when she is in pain. She has difficulty asking for help when she needs it, even though she knows people like being appreciated and enjoy being able to help her, because she doesn't always like to be reminded of her limitations. Yet having an understanding of when to ask for help and doing it without shame means she can value her own needs and physical state. She doesn't like labeling people and believes that when people frequently change the label for people with disabilities, this shows that they have trouble accepting them. . If she had to choose a label, she would choose "handicapped" not "disabled." For her, the real meaning of handicap is similar to the handicap the better golfer gets to give the disadvantaged player a head start. Others believe that "disability" is more appropriate because it emphasizes someones ability. Do we need to find other labels or abandon them altogether?
Lydia loves to travel in or near the mountains. I wanted to integrate these mountains into my painting for her and also keep my own vision of water and reflections as an important focus. Both mountains and water are calming to me. Even though my first impulse to paint a water scene came from my own love of painting water with watercolor, eventually I could see Lydia looking at herself in the water. The reflection of Lydia's femur bones represents her continual reality check of who she is and how she chooses to view herself.
The primary colors, red, yellow and blue, are symbols of the purity and naivete with which we see the world soon
after we are born. Both the white and the yellow in this painting conjure up respectively a near-death experience and a new-found life. There are faint pencil images that you can still see on the right side of the painting. I was going to use them as guides for a buildup of images onto watercolor paper, which would have been superimposed onto the first sheet, but I chose to take off these layers and stick to the bare bones.
Lydia recently published a book called To Live With Grace and Dignity, about people with disabilities and attendants who provide their personal care. In the book she included photos she made of those she interviewed. Now she is working on another book about children with disabilities and their siblings. As a retired mathematics professor, she teaches math part time and is also a documentary photographer.
Lydia's Journal Entries
WEDNESDAY, January 3, 1979: within a week - a life, a near death, and back to life again. Afternoon of the 21st arrived in Luxor, Egypt; met Ahmed who invited me out. We met after dinner for drinks and then went to a night club, saw a show and danced. We came out of the club around midnight, got into his car. A few flashes remain in my memory - Dr. H. yelling about I.V.s, Lucy holding my hand in an airplane and a great bid body cast sticking out all over me - the next thing I'm aware of is being in the hospital in Cairo.
... I cannot conceive of how it would feel to be dead. Between 12:30 when the accident happened and 7 A.M. when they realized I hadn't come home and Hanafi found me, I was - I could have been dead. It didn't hurt. It didn't bother me a bit. It would have hurt my parents and kids, but they would have gotten over it and life would have gone on. All in all, there's nothing very profound to say about death (at least when it comes suddenly and painlessly).
...In traction, flat on my back, going nowhere. Bobbi, the very, very little old British lady whose husband is anEgyptian
banker and is here for surgery, has been given too many flowers. So she brings them here - two gorgeous flower arrange-
ments. I love to stare at them. When every little act takes tremendous amounts of energy it's good just to have flowers to stare at.
The experience of recuperating, coming back to life after three months in the hospital and another two months struggling around on crutches, gradually feeling stronger and finally being relatively free of pain, was truly like being born
again. I recall walking up the hill from my office past a eucalyptus tree that I had passed hundreds of times before and not only seeing with my eyes but with my whole being, its shimmering leaves and blue, blue sky. I remember taking in, with my whole being, the sounds of Beethoven's Ninth, the feeling on my skin of a gentle breeze, the taste of sushi, and a hot fudge sundae. And the ecstasy of making love for the first time after the accident, of feeling whole again.