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“Unmasking Brain Injury” at ArtPrize 2016

Many of us go through life hiding behind a “mask” at one time or another. For someone with a brain injury, it may feel like that mask will never be removed.

Physical limitations, memory deficits, not acting like the person they “used to be”, these are common changes people with a brain injury face. When exposed to others – old friends, family members, the community in general – people often see their disabilities, not who they really are.

Unmasking Brain InjuryHowever, “Unmasking Brain Injury“, a 3-D exhibition of paper masks on display during ArtPrize 2016, hopes to change that perception.

The exhibition features 28 masks, each decorated by someone living with the tragic effects of brain injury. Artists designed these masks to represent their authentic selves when public perception, stigma, and prejudice are removed.

“Unmasking Brain Injury” is part of a national project to spread the word on the prevalence of brain injury. Hope Network Neuro Rehabilitation (HNNR) initially adopted the project as a therapeutic activity for its long-term residents. After realizing the significant impact the project solicited, HNNR entered the piece in the seventh annual Legacy Trust Award Collection (LTAC) competition for adult artists with disabilities. It won the public vote and as a result, was given the opportunity to enter ArtPrize 2016.

“The project started without any competition in mind,” says Lori VanderWal, a member of the Therapeutic Recreation team at HNNR. “Creativity is one of those things in life where the more you use it and the more you share it, the more you have. The activity led to conversations and interactions that never would have taken place otherwise.”

One mask features paintings of instruments while a small model airplane rests upon the forehead. “I received my pilot’s license in July of 1985,” explains the artist. “My other passion has always been music. I played the cello for years and continue to attend and perform at concerts each year. After my accident I was never able to pilot a plane again, but I still carry my pilot’s license in my wallet to serve as a reminder of my life prior to my accident.”

Another mask is covered in colorful tactile bumps with the words “Life’s Journey” placed among them. The artist describes, “My life’s journey has been a bumpy road. The physical me is in a power wheelchair, hooked up to an oxygen tank, and I recently had my right leg amputated, but behind all that: I’m smarter than most, I like to cook, and I love to read.”

ArtPrize began in 2009, where it successfully brought over 200,000 visitors to the Grand Rapids area. It has since grown, with over 430,000 visitors last year. Known as the most public attended art competition in the world, ArtPrize seeks to start conversations through art. You can view “Unmasking Brain Injury” and the stories behind the masks at DeVos Place, September 21 – October 9, 2016.