Lisa Gunn: The art of survival

A horrific car crash nearly killed artist Lisa Gunn, and left her with spinal injuries. She explains how her damaged body inspired a whole new dimension to her work

I was dumbfounded. For the first time in years, I didn't need my crutches. I didn't need my carer. I was floating in this lovely warm water and the pain had just dissipated. We were on holiday in the Maldives – and it was the closest I had come to feeling what life was like before the accident.

I was 21 when the crash happened. I had a budding career in modelling and was doing a degree in fine art. It was my summer break and I'd taken a job driving a van for a delivery company. I was just driving along and a man cut me up. I couldn't see him; there was this massive blind spot.

When I realised he was there, I thought I was going to hit him – and probably kill him. The only thing I could do was swerve the vehicle, crashing it into the verge. Apparently he stopped, that other driver. But when he saw what had happened he turned away and carried on going.

The following four years were spent in bed, just waiting to get better. It's the sort of thing that you could never believe beforehand that you could do. You imagine that once you get out of the hospital things will go back to normal, but the biggest shock was coming home. There was nothing I could do. I had an unstable spinal column. Recovery is all self-healing; it took a long, long time to be able to sit up. So, I read a lot. I had a television placed high on the wall where I could see it. I was very dependent on my parents. It was a case of living day to day. A waiting game.

Of course, I'd pulled out of university. My parents had to call and tell them. But then, once I was out of bed and in a wheelchair, I went to visit the head of my course. I needed a reference from him. As soon as he saw me he said: "Oh, so you're coming back then?"

At first, I thought he was joking. I was there, in my wheelchair with my carer and I couldn't believe it. But he wasn't. I went away and thought of nothing else for a couple of days. Then I called up and said that, yes, I'd very much like to come back.

I thought it would be impossible, but he proved me wrong. The university was brilliant. I had a raised platform to lie on while I worked. They gave me a lot of studio space. They were so kind.

Before the accident, my painting had been abstract expressionist. It was very physical, very energetic. This time around, it was totally different. Initially I just started drawing again. I started from scratch: just a piece of charcoal. It was terrifying. I was going into a higher level of education and I had to teach myself so quickly. I drew and I drew and I drew, but I felt like I needed to do something else. My movement was so limited that the whole thing felt so restricted. Foreshortened.

And then something happened. A young man at my university – he was in one of my classes – made an off-hand remark: "You know, you'd be really quite attractive if you weren't in a wheelchair." I was stunned – speechless. My eyes were watering. It felt like I was being told: "You're not one of us." Like I didn't fit in. It made me think about people's perceptions, how people reacted to my being in a wheelchair, and how beauty is defined. What is ideal? What is perfect? What is this self-consciousness that is indoctrinated into our society?

From then on I began experimenting with photography, with self-portraiture. If you look at my early work, you can see my chair but it's often faded out slightly, or obscured. The point was that maybe you should see me, not just my chair. Going to the Maldives shortly afterwards was a revelation: discovering how I was in water, able just to float. It was very difficult to get me out of the sea that day. Best of all, I had a camera with me and, as an artist, I couldn't resist experimenting. When I got home and saw the shots, I couldn't believe it. There were just six of them, but they were amazing. I didn't look like me – or, at least, I didn't look the way I perceived myself. I looked completely able-bodied.

Discovering photography has changed the way I approach everything. Since those pictures, I've done two diving courses. I'm now an advanced underwater diver – and I trained as a Padi diver, not a disabled one. I go to dive pools in Hammersmith with my camera and put it on the bottom, weighed down by diving weights. And then I just perform, taking the photos myself with a plunger.

My art is the one area where I have complete autonomy. That has become so important to me. I am completely independent. Having had an experience like the accident – well, your life changes and your independence becomes something you struggle for. In my photos, there's no chair, no carer. Just me. Of course, I'll have somebody around in the studio but they don't take part in the work. It's all me.

One of the works in my recent exhibition entitled Trapezius, is called Columna vertebralis. It is a site-specific, 11ft scale sculpture of my damaged spinal column. I used MRIs and X-rays of my full spine and particularly its damaged vertebrae, to sculpt an anatomical representation of how it has changed. The work is not only intended to be a physical study of the nature of the damage to my spine, but is also a realisation of the human body's amazing ability to adapt, evolve and heal in the most extreme of circumstances. I hope this work will help others understand physical differences in a completely different way to how they are generally seen.

I feel something now that I wouldn't have had the chance to feel if the accident hadn't happened. It's a sense of achievement, a feeling of gratitude. I survived against the odds. I just feel so happy – so lucky – to have lived through that. I couldn't imagine existing afterwards, but you have to. You realise you have to. I've been given a second chance at life.

In my latest set of images, I'm nude. Initially, I decided to do that as a reaction to how people made me feel. When you're being lifted in and out of cars, having things done for you, you feel naked. When I was in the hospital, I spent months and months literally naked, on a turning table. They say you leave your dignity at the door. I decided to turn that idea on its head.

Gradually, the meaning has changed. To see a disabled person naked is controversial. It raises questions about identity, femininity. Are you still a woman? People change towards you when you have a disability and you see your body in a very different way. You almost start to feel as though it's not your own. People bluntly ask you what's wrong. They're just trying to be friendly, but it can feel like a rejection.

It's funny. People often assume that my photographs are a form of therapy, but I'm not sure they are. If it is a form of therapy, it's a very harsh one. You really put yourself through it, creating something like that. All the issues are in your mind and you're thinking them over constantly. I'd rather see them as a celebration. A celebration of life, of the fact that I'm so lucky to be alive. If I can get that out to people and help them understand that in the work, then that's amazing.

At the end of the day, there are all these issues – the disability, the judgements, the reactions – but then when people see my art, it no longer matters. It's a shared moment, no matter who's looking at the pictures – whether they are disabled, or not. It's one time when not any of that matters, because the experience is the same for everybody.

My first exhibition was in March 2003. During a professional practice module at university, I'd rented a gallery space for £38 to put on an exhibition. Totally unexpectedly, I sold a lot of work. It was a huge surprise for everyone – even my teachers. So the Herbert Gallery in Coventry asked if I'd exhibit there. Since then, I've shown at lots of locations. I work with the Helium Foundation, which connects artists with collectors. This month, I'm part of the Bloomsbury Art Fair, exhibiting with artists who've had experiences similar to mine. I'm really looking forward to that. I can't wait to see how they relate to my work.

Bloomsbury Art Fair, 14 to 16 July at Goodenough College and Mecklenburgh Square, London. www.bloomsburyart

Interview by Alice-Azania Jarvis

Life after spinal injury

* Road accidents are the most common cause of Spinal Cord Injury.

* There are several types of spinal injury. Cervical injuries – those to the neck – tend to result in full or partial quadriplegia, though the location of the injury can determine the extent to which this is the case.

* Injuries at the C-1 or C-2 levels – the top two spinal segments – can render independent breathing impossible, making a ventilator necessary.

* Thoracic injuries, those obtained further down the spine, tend to result in paraplegia. Lumbosacral injuries, even further down, inhibit use of the legs.

* Rehabilitation after injury is an extremely slow process. Patients are generally kept immobilised, before embarking on a series of occupational and physical therapies.

* Over time, certain abilities may be regained, and pain reduced.

* Recovery is typically fastest during the first six months; after nine months, few experience a substantial recovery.


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