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Oct 06th
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On the Mend

Brain injury survivors unleash a mind-bending art show


In 1999 at Aptos Junior High School, Monica Magallanes, a psychotherapist, was working with two severely emotionally disturbed children, when a suicide attempt happened. A child tried to throw himself down a stairwell and Magallanes tried to restrain him. Meanwhile, the other child became upset and smashed Magallanes over the head with an old telephone. A few days later, the damage to her brain began to surface.

“I was in the field working with a child and I lost use of my hands, I couldn’t use them,” Magallanes says.

She went on disability for six months and was deemed to have a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Now, Magallanes is part of a group of similarly injured people who are participating in an art show that’s currently hanging in the local Dead Cow Gallery and on the first floor walls of the County Building.

After recovering from the injury, she went on to work at a local HIV clinic, when one day a client came in intoxicated and bleeding profusely. He stumbled and fell, knocking Magallanes down, and she broke her neck, as well as sustaining further brain injuries and damage to her lower spine. “It’s common for someone who has suffered a head trauma to suffer another one, because of a tendency to lose some of your coordination and balance,” she says.

“I had difficulty reading and eventually they sent me to a neurologist,” Magallanes says. “The problems with my mind and neck were more severe and I had to wear a brace and I couldn’t work.” Since then, in 2002, she’s been on disability and her life has been radically altered. “I’m afraid to go out a lot now,” Magallanes admits. “I’m constantly fearful someone will bump into me or knock me down, or I’ll get re-injured in some way. I’m not as social as I used to be.”

Six months after her second injury, someone referred her to a local nonprofit agency, which specializes in helping people in Magallanes’ situation: the Central Coast Center for Independent Living (CCCIL), which provides various resources and assistance to disabled persons. “I started going to the support group and working with Christi Voenell (a CCCIL employee who has also suffered from a TBI) on her first art project.”

onthemend2In 2004, the executive director of CCCIL told Voenell that some extra money was available and she was able to spend it however she wanted. “I bought some supplies and taught some art classes … for people with brain injuries,” Voenell says. “People really came alive. ... A lot of people have great difficulty with memory and speech and to use art to capture what’s going on in their minds, without any words, it’s an amazing way for people to express the huge stories they have to tell, when their communication [might be] impaired.”

For Magallanes, “I have to say that this art program has really saved my life,” she says. “It brought me back out in the community. I’ve made new friends and found that I can do some of the things I never thought I’d be able to do again.”

The theme for the art show is in the style of “photo voice,” where photography and writings are married to create original works of art. The artists involved in the project were all given a funky, old manual camera and some photography lessons.

Magallanes created a four-picture collage that features her goddaughter. “This last year I was really sick and she … and this art project, helped me come out of this very bad time. There was going to be light at the end of the tunnel, spring after winter.”

The pictures and words represented in the show capture how these artists’ lives have changed since their injuries, and it’s titled, “Jumbled Stillness: Photos of Life by People With Traumatic Brain Injuries.” It was hung months ago in the summertime at The Attic and because the response was so strong to the first showing, it’s up again until the end of November at the aforementioned galleries.

“It was pretty clear that there are a lot of people who don’t know about our services, or were really moved by the stories of people with brain injuries,” Voenell says of reactions to the first showing.

CCCIL’s services include providing support for up to 200 people in Santa Cruz County; up to 60 of them have a TBI. The agency has been around since 1984 and is funded by the Seat Belt Law.

Of the 60 or so people living with a TBI, Voenell is one of them. Fifteen years ago, she was a 24-year-old teacher who was riding her bike home from school when she was hit by a car. The injury forced her into a coma for a week and when she came out, she had to take three years off of work. Nowadays, she experiences memory loss and difficulty multitasking as a result of her TBI.

Voenell has participated in the show with a photograph of her son that was taken in her backyard. “It’s my reminder that when life feels so overwhelming and having a brain injury and living in this fast-paced world, I can come back to my son and garden, to a place where I feel grounded.”

The following is an excerpt from her writings that accompany the photo:

“The garden was a place I could visit and feel my wholeness. I carried the scent on my clothes and small bits of earth under my nails each day while I took on the enormous task of retraining my mind, mending my broken bones and learning to love who I had become.”

Jumbled Stillness: Photos of Life by People With Traumatic Brain Injuries is on display until the end of November at the County Building on the first floor, 701 Water St., Santa Cruz, and at the Dead Cow Gallery, 1040 River St., Santa Cruz. For more information about CCCIL, visit or call 462-8720.

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