Blind, Deaf Artist Perseveres

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:10

Emilie Gossiaux had been deaf since age 5; an accident that left her blind hasn't stopped the force of her art

It has been nearly four years since Emilie Gossiaux 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, 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."

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."

A lifelong focus Emilie wound up in New York after a childhood spent devoted to her art, first at the New Orleans Creative Center for the Arts and then, at 15, Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida. She earned a spot at Cooper Union, which only accepts 30 students a year from outside the New York area for its fully paid tuition program. In New York, she made her own art and apprenticed with renowned artists such as Daniel Arsham. 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.

Recreating a life

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, 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. Her optic nerves were irreparably severed. Emilie was blind.

Her friends and family could not communicate with her, and so she seemed unresponsive. Doctors 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, 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.

Back to creating

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 co-workers 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.)

But the programs for the blind in New York were not helping her achieve the independence she sought. So in January of 2012, she moved to Minneapolis to start a program with the National Federation of the Blind that teaches people to live totally independent in their surroundings. Emilie spent 11 months learning skills like how to navigate a city, how 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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," she said. "The whole performance was about the act of giving, helping and sharing."

Emilie 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.

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