Blind, deaf artist perseveres

By

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Was she dreaming? Was she awake?

Emilie Gossiaux found herself in total blackness.

Someone touched her hand; she pulled away. Something brushed her ear; she shook her head. Something pierced her arm; she pulled back.

"Stop it!" she tried to yell but couldn't unclench her teeth.

She flailed.

She realized she was lying down, and when she tried to get up, paralyzing pain shot through her hips and left leg.

She couldn't understand why everything was quiet, was pain, was dark. Everywhere she turned, more blackness.

"Pull me out of the wall," she finally said.

Pull me out of the wall. It's exactly the kind of abstraction an artist would use to describe the nothingness all around her.

Emilie didn't know she was blind.

And no one could tell her. Because she was also deaf.

It has been nearly four years since Gossiaux, a graduate of Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, was run over by an 18-wheeler as she biked to the art studio where she worked in New York City.

Deaf since age 5, she was blinded and nearly killed in the accident in October 2010. Her pelvis was crushed, her left femur shattered, her jaw wired shut, her optic nerves severed. Doctors once feared she was "gone," her mother recalled, beyond the reach of medicine and of this world.

They asked to harvest her organs.

But last month, Gossiaux, 24, walked across the stage as a graduate of the prestigious Cooper Union in New York City, where she returned last spring after intense therapy for her body and her artistic soul.

She lives alone by choice in Manhattan with her guide dog, London, and continues to make inspired work that others say is only a continuation of a blossoming artistic career. Art that is not impressive because it was made by a blind-deaf artist but regardless of it.

Because art is a powerful force for Emilie Gossiaux. An irresistible one.

"No one stands in the way of her art," her mother, Susan Gossiaux, said. "It's all she sees. It's all she focuses on."

Art isn't just something she makes. Art is how she speaks: Pull me out of the wall.

Even when everything is dark, what art wants, art gets.

"Art has always been my true love," she said. "Even if I stopped doing it for a while, it will always find its way back into my life. It's like something that I do naturally, like breathing or eating or sleeping."

Hours after putting Emilie to bed, before going to sleep, Susan Gossiaux would check her daughter's room in Terrytown, La., one last time.

She often found Emilie, about 8 years old, sitting in the closet, drawing her own comic strips by the parallel lines of moonlight shining through the blinds.

"Emilie's always been different. I still can't figure her out," Susan Gossiaux said.

A series of infections in her ears as a child cost Emilie her hearing by age 5, and she had to wear powerful hearing aids just to have marginal hearing. She hated them. She covered her ears with her hair and when she couldn't hear others, she preferred them to think she was shy or aloof rather than different. She lip-read the teachers.

Susan Gossiaux, who worked as a teacher and school librarian for 39 years until retiring last year, warned her that children would be cruel, and she would have to be prepared for that.

"If you have a child with a disability, you have to be tough. Because the world's not going to say, 'Aww .'" Susan Gossiaux said. "As long as she could draw, the world could be chaos around her."

Emilie emoted into her sketchbooks and painting. At 13, she applied to the famed New Orleans Creative Center for the Arts and found a home there.

"I felt like I was with my family and friends," Emilie wrote in an email. Because of her limited hearing, she corresponds mostly through email and has her computer read the messages aloud.

School was just another tool for her to develop her art. She wouldn't go out on the weekends and stayed after school at NOCCA to work on art projects another three, four hours. Art was an imperative.

"I used to shut myself away in my room on weekends to paint and draw," she said. "I guess I didn't have a normal teenage social life. I had a few close friends that I would see occasionally, but I spent most of my time working on art."

Art was not gentle. It was not the soccer coach who gives everyone a participation trophy. Art to Emilie is Vince Lombardi's motto on winning: everything, the only thing.

"It was like the monster that ate her," Susan Gossiaux said.

But in 2005, Hurricane Katrina battered the school and forced it to close. Rather than attend a regular high school, she applied to Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach and to live with a host family.

"I fought her not to go," Susan Gossiaux said, worried for her daughter. "She left everything behind for her art. Art was her first love."

At 15, she was accepted at Dreyfoos and would stay there for the next two years. When college recruiters came to Dreyfoos, Emilie is whom they wanted to see.

"She's definitely the most original artist I've ever had the pleasure of working with," said Jenny Gifford, who has taught for 21 years at the school. "The way she makes art, you can feel the force coming through."

Gifford was consistently awestruck at the way Emilie's mind worked. Sometimes it was in a sculpture, sometimes in mixed media and performance art, and always in her drawing. As a senior she wrote and performed a one-act performance where she stripped down to her underwear onstage as she removed a sheep's costume and dressed into a wolf's — a commentary on the nature and sexualization of women. A mural she painted on a Dreyfoos wall is still displayed prominently.

"She was an awkward teenager and was willing to admit it in her work. She was revealing herself in her work," Gifford said. "You're going to be seeing and reading about her work for the rest of her life."

No one was surprised when the school she had set her mind on — The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, which accepts only 30 students a year from outside the New York area for its fully paid tuition program — offered her a spot.

She made her own art and apprenticed with renowned artists such as the Miami-born Daniel Arsham, who designed the Orange Bowl letters around the new Marlins Stadium. While in New York, she also got a cochlear implant — a sort of bionic ear — in her left ear that helped her better articulate sounds. Still, hearing for Emilie is like trying to pick out one voice in a rowdy stadium. The more sounds there are, the more the sounds distort and meld together.

On Oct. 8, 2010, she strapped on her helmet, jumped on her bike, and headed for Arsham's studio. But as she waited for the light to change on the corner of Johnson and Varick avenues in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, an 18-wheeler turning right hopped the curb and ran her down.

What could have been left of her? Barely a hundred pounds with quiet blue eyes and a sweet whisper of voice versus a rumbling 80,000-pound diesel truck? She was rushed to Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan, unidentifiable for all the fractures in her face.

Her heart stopped for more than a minute. She had a stroke and slipped into a coma. Her pelvis had to be reconstructed and her left leg was held together by metal rods and pins. Doctors even had to temporarily remove her intestines and lay them outside her body to give her lungs room to breathe while her body healed. Her optic nerves were irreparably severed. Emilie was blind.

"It was a pretty horrific scene," said Gifford, who has remained close with Emilie and visited her at the hospital several times. "It was devastating to see her like that."

Emilie was trapped in oblivion. Her friends and family could not communicate with her, and so she seemed unresponsive. Doctors predicted rehabilitation would be impossible for someone who could not communicate. They predicted she would remain in this inaccessible vegetative state as she lived out a life in a nursing home.

But that's when her then-boyfriend, Alan Lundgard, a fellow Cooper Union student who lived with her, came across the method Annie Sullivan had used to communicate with Helen Keller.

He took her hand and drew letters on her palm — an act both purposeful and artistic.

He slowly spelled out, "I love you."

"Oh, you love me? That's so sweet. Thank you," she said suddenly — miraculously.

Emilie had been found.

When she asked why it was so dark — and asked to be pulled out of the wall — she was told she was blind.

It was the only time anyone can remember seeing Emilie cry during the entire ordeal.

Over the next few months, doctors turned her cochlear implant back on and she began the long process of learning to walk, to talk, to use her hands again in total darkness.

She would not leave New York. She was determined to regain abilities and continue her career as a New York artist. Her mother moved in with her and her boyfriend for a year and a half — on leave from her job after coworkers donated their vacation time.

She was determined not to be helpless. She learned braille in seven months; it takes most people up to two years. Before the year was out, she read her first book in braille: Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises."

Ideas for art floated in the blackness around her. But she didn't yet have the dexterity to snatch them out of the air and make them real. ("The artist in me needed time to heal," she said.)

"The words 'stop' and 'give up' never occurred to me," she said to a graduating NOCCA class after the school reopened, "but I'd be lying if I told you I never doubted my abilities."

Her first attempt came about 10 months after the wreck, when a friend, curating a show about love, asked her what it was like to fall in love.

She took out a clean white sheet of paper and — after several tries until it was perfectly straight and fitted to the page — wrote in braille: "When everything feels like vanilla."

But the programs for the blind in New York were not helping her achieve the independence she sought. So in January of 2012, she was referred to Blind Inc., a program from the National Federation of the Blind that teaches people to live totally independent in their surroundings. And although one of three schools that taught the program was in her home state of Louisiana, she chose the one in Minneapolis, a city to which she'd never been.

"I wanted to train in a city environment that could be similar to New York," she said.

For the next 11 months, she lived with a roommate and learned to fend for herself through a series of classes to encourage independence. Among the graduation requirements were to be dropped off somewhere in the city and having to find her way back to the center. She learned to cook for herself and even had to prepare and serve a full meal — salad, baked bread, drinks, main course, side dish and dessert — for 30 people.

"I got used to not seeing by just listening to my gut and feeling, and I got better at it," she said.

More important she met George Wurtzel, a blind woodworking artist and cabinetmaker who teaches woodworking with tools as a way to show the recently blind what they are still capable of.

"Her fine motor skills were way ahead of everyone else's," said Wurtzel, who has an upcoming show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in September.

Tools were not an obstacle, but another opportunity to express the things locked inside her. She nicked her fingers with the metal chisels and other hand tools early on, but the creative skills she'd honed over the years were clear.

"What you create, it's not in your eyeballs," he told her, "it's in your head."

At one point, he handed her an abstract project: three blocks of wood fused together. He carved the short end into the wing of a bird. He told her his idea is that it was like her, a bird that crashed into a block of wood and became embedded inside. She held the wooden sculpture in her hands, fingered the finished side and then the rough untouched wooden rectangle on the other end.

She carved the other side into a dagger.

"This is what I'm going to use to cut myself free," she said.

"When she did that, I knew she was serious about it," Wurtzel said. "She was not going to take no for an answer."

He taught her to be fearless in the dark. He taught her to use a table saw, a wood-turning lathe, even a chainsaw which she used to carve a stylized heart out of a block of ice.

"How do you teach a deaf-blind person to uses a chainsaw? From behind them," Wurtzel said.

He dedicated a page to her on his website, www.gmwurtzel.com , under the heading Inspiration.

"This man has given me a priceless gift and showed me a valuable lesson: That sight has nothing to do with making art. It's the vision within that matters," she said in her speech to NOCCA.

When she wanted to make a wooden bust of a person lying down, Wurtzel called in his lifelong friend, Stephen Handschu, a sculptor from Tampa born with 5 percent vision, who happened to be in Minneapolis.

"When you first meet her, you think a breeze would blow her away," Handschu said. "But you speak to her for five minutes and think, 'My God, I'm speaking to a giant.'"

Handschu spent 70 hours — all in one week — working with her in wood and clay. She would come in at 8 a.m. and at 8 p.m. he would have to tell her, "Emilie, it's time to quit."

"That was a life-and-death issue for her," Handschu said. "She was determined she had to 'get it' and quickly, to return to Cooper Union to get her degree."

A banquet of art

She returned to New York and started back at Cooper Union in January of last year and returned to work with Arsham, all while living alone. More than ever, she explored making art you could feel with your hands as well as your soul. And when she sculpted a pair of cradling hands that also looked like a dove, "Bird Sitting" won the Award of Excellence from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Her work was displayed at the Smithsonian.

"Emilie's not going to have an easy time of it," said the artist Arsham, who invited Emilie back into his studio. "She's going to struggle to make her art, to bring it to the public. But I think if it were easy, she'd probably do something else."

For her senior thesis project at Cooper, she tapped into what she'd learned in Minneapolis. She sculpted 110 bowls out of clay, carved 130 forks out of wood and used them to serve a spaghetti dinner for her final art show earlier this month. The bowls were unglazed, so the spaghetti in red sauce left a mark, like a memory, in each bowl as they were stacked by a sink she also handmade out of ceramics.

She served each of the more-than 300 people who so overwhelmed the art studio they had to enter in groups of 60 and even sit on the floor, Emilie feeling her way around them. Arsham, who was at her exhibition, noted she "reinvented her own language of sculpture."

"I wanted to mesh the line between functional objects and art, so people could experience my art in more ways than one. I wanted to change the perception people have of art, by inviting them to take part in it. To talk, to move, to eat, and to touch, it is all a part of the art work," she said. "The whole performance was about the act of giving, helping and sharing."

Graduation was a formality. She already has a job working in education and media at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers from several artists to work in their studios, and is making her own art in a shared space in Brooklyn.

Blindness took her sight, but not her vision. Plunged into darkness, Emilie learned to see.

"I understand that nothing is really different, the world is still the same," she said, "and I am still me."

___

Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, http://www.pbpost.com

©2014 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.