Damaged brains

One month ago, during a freak out-of-the-blue April snow storm, I slipped and fell in the middle of downtown Toronto. I fell really, really hard. I didn’t hit my head, but I felt very much in shock. Of course my first thought was, “I really have to get to that meeting” and staggered my way up the street.

It wasn’t until three days later, after colleagues kept saying, “Are you ok? You’re acting really weirdly” that I went to see doctor. I had a concussion.

I was advised to have complete physical and cognitive rest. No screens, no reading, no crossword puzzles, no light, only light music.

“Can I draw?” was the first question I asked.

The answer was yes. WHY that activity is allowable and others are not, I don’t know. Personally I think drawing deeply engages your brain.

So, I’ve been:

  • Sleeping
  • Meditating
  • Listening to podcasts and audiobooks
  • Drawing

I’ve been continuing to draw on the labels that I had started before (you know, the ones that my autistic daughter ripped up during an overload meltdown).

I’ve been drawing anything and everything: the bottle of Advil, my coffee cup, cells, how to use chopsticks diagrams, sweet and sour chicken balls, neurons, bugs.


I’m thinking about (and therefore drawing) brains–concussions, depression, autism, learning disabilities, giftedness, left and right sides.

And while I am drawing I am ever aware of how happy I am while doing it. I don’t care about the final product or what will happen to these drawings. I am just making.

After three hellish years of an intense job while taking care of a special needs little girl, this concussion has forced me to stop and slow down and value what really is worthwhile.





Labels, contained

I decided to mount the labels on a board, with T-pins, like specimens. My daughter, in a meltdown fury, had ripped up a few of these little drawings into tiny pieces. I of course was devastated but decided to use this act of destruction into a work of creation. The last two drawings pinned up are glued together, and the rest sit in a pile at the bottom.


Labels, contained.


Sign Language

M. assessing her work.M. assessing her work.

The collaborative work that my five year old hard of hearing daughter and I are doing is the most interesting and challenging work I have done in a long time. I’ve decided to title the exhibit “Sign Language“, as it refers not only to the ASL we are learning, but more about how people can communicate non-verbally. This give-and-take (okay, more “take” in my kid’s case) relationship is a different way of working for me. I want to respect and keep a lot of her mark making and imagery, but at the same time often I have to alter or remove them for the sake of the whole piece. There is a part of my heart that is crushed every time I make a decision like this, to “erase” a precious part of her childhood. To her, she doesn’t really care. It’s just another drawing.

We are using all sorts of materials, such as acrylic, tempera, crayon, watercolour pencils, gouache. Our latest addition to our media vocabulary is pink and purple sparkly paint! M. doesn’t like the way it’s translucent; she prefers her colours bold and punchy. And sparkly.

I am finding that our use of bird imagery is especially pertinent, because before she was aided at almost four, she couldn’t hear birds at all.




Sometimes I get “stuck”. When I’m teaching a lot, grading, taking my daughter to appointments and not in my studio, I get stuck. I stare at a blank canvas (well, actually I don’t use a lot of canvas, but you know what I mean). But I have to practice what I preach: “It’s just a canvas”, I tell my students. “You are making the painting, the painting is not making you.” How much power that empty canvas can have over an artist is pretty incredible. It’s because it represents a multitude of possibilities that you don’t know where it’s going to lead. Yes. Terrifying.

I love drawing. Drawing is so immediate and almost primal. I love watching kids draw because they are so engaged in watching the mark take place on the paper. They are not thinking if critics and curators are going to see it. To them, it’s almost magical that this line is coming out of the crayon. It really is a collaboration between the mind, the crayon, the eyes and the brain.

So. To unstick myself and get back to what I love, I bought a huge sheet of heavy drawing paper. Four feet by eight feet. I put it up on my studio wall. And I let my kid draw on it. And then I draw in response to her marks. It takes all of my being not to say, “Oh don’t mix those complementary colours together, sweetie. You’ll make mud.” Or, “Um, I wouldn’t put a line there, it kinda ruins the composition.”

We are collaborating on this large scale drawing –her lines upon my scribbles, wide arches of muddy paint colours over my washes. I realize that because my kid is so much part of my life, and much of my life in the last year has been about dealing with her hearing issues, that I should involve her–really involve her, in my art and in a visual way.

The in-between world

Usually, when people discover (through noticing the hearing aids) that my kid is hard of hearing, the first question they as is: “Does she know Sign Language?” I always answer in a fumbly way, “Uh, no, um she doesn’t have to but she’s interested in it, so we’re looking into it.” And then it occurred to me the other day that her situation is so similar to my being Chinese-Canadian! People always ask, because I’m of Chinese descent, if I speak Chinese. There’s this assumption that it should come naturally to me. To which I always respond, “How’s your Gaelic?

This life in dual worlds is the central theme in my own artwork, of feeling partly of one culture, partly of another, and not sure where we fit. It’s becoming the way of the contemporary world as it plummets towards globalisation. In terms of Hard of Hearing people, this world is aptly described in this article (THANKS to HearMe Hear Me Not wordpress blog!!)


In terms of learning ASL, it’s a language that we’re really interested in and not just because my daughter is hard of hearing. She had the opportunity to go into a French Immersion program next year of Senior Kindergarten, but after much stress and consideration, my husband and I decided against it. Before we knew she was hard of hearing, I just assumed that she would go into French immersion. There was no question about it. However, since she was identified late at almost four years old and catching up on those years of lost access to full hearing, we decided we would wait. And maybe our second language would be ASL!

However, finding an ASL class that was not “Baby Sign” (she’s too old for that! And so are we!) and that was not full-on ASL classes for adults, we’ve been having a tricky time finding a good fit for all three of us.

My daughter loves loves loves singing. She’s singing all of the time: washing her hands, drawing, tying knots in string. We would like to find a class that incorporated learning ASL vocabulary through song and movement. I contacted Silent Voice Canada’s amazing Family Communication program


and they sent us Craig, a very funny and kind Deaf man. But my daughter didn’t understand Deafness. In her aided world, her experience is quite different than Craig’s. In fact, despite me telling her that he can’t hear at all, she kept yelling at him louder and louder! How mortifying. Fortunately Craig was so graceful and understanding.

Anyway, we found that it was very hard to keep a four year old’s attention engaged for a full hour in full ASL immersion. We needed to find a way that, as I mentioned above, bridged both worlds. And a class that taught all three of us as a family. We’re in this together.

I know I’ll probably never be fluent in ASL,but the very very very few signs I know have been helpful in noisy places, when she’s in the bath. when she’s just a little to far to hear me well. “Do you need to pee?” is a common one. And, “Don’t do that.” or “Stop.” Hopefully she won’t associate ASL with negative commands!

This weekend we are going to a weekend camp through VOICE: for Hearing Impaired Children. 


It’s a group that encourages and promotes Auditory Verbal therapy and auditory -oral language development, not ASL so much (if at all?)  We’re really excited to meet other parents of hearing impaired kids, and as it’s part of my kid’s new culture, I want her to experience all ends of the spectrum.

Especially the in-between parts.


Sometimes I don’t believe that my kid can’t hear well.

It’s not that I think the audiologists are lying, but when I can call my kid when she’s not wearing her aids from behind her, have conversations that include all of the “f” and “s” sounds she supposedly can’t hear, talk to her in a crowded loud room and she answers, sometimes I wonder.

It was a real shock to us when she was identified at three and a half. She had language, and was talking, but her speech was a little fuzzy around the edges. Her comprehension of things seemed a little off and haphazard.  She had been going to speech therapy but not improving. It was discouraging and stressful. After six months of therapy, and as a routine part of the speech therapy sessions she went to an audiologist. I was certain that her hearing would be fine so it was extremely shocking to find out that perhaps that wasn’t the case.

My daughter has a high-frequency hearing loss. Here’s a cool site that lets you hear what it’s like:


So she can hear, but not well. Because she’s a smart cookie she’s learned to lip/speech read, fill in the blanks, follow body language cues for the first four years of her life.


Loud kids concerts

My daughter is hard of hearing. She was identified late at 3 and a half years old because she can hear mid and low frequencies but not high ones, like “s” and “f” and birds singing and tea kettles whistling. She got her first hearing aids when she was four. They have been  miraculous! I call them “magic ears”. Anyway, this past weekend in Toronto, we went to our school’s Fun(d) Fair, and our street’s rock festival and now this afternoon a kid’s rock festival. All of these events are really really loud. Now, you would think that for a hearing impaired child that would be helpful! But no! Hearing aids, unlike glasses with vision, do not correct your hearing. They amplify sounds. So, you can imagine if the concert’s too loud for me, what it would be like for her!

But she’s stubborn, and told me she was fine and wouldn’t turn off the aids or take them out.