An Artist: How Technology Helped Emilie Gossiaux Overcome Blindness to Rediscover Her Process

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On October 8, 2010, Cooper Union art student Emilie Gossiaux was hit by an 18-wheeler truck while riding her bike to a studio in New York City. She sustained a traumatic brain injury, multiple fractures to her skull, leg and pelvis, and her heart had stopped beating for nearly one minute.

Doctors asked Emilie’s mother, Susan Gossiaux, about donating her daughter’s organs the next day. Despite this, Emilie made her way back. With the help of her boyfriend Alan Lundgard who wrote messages on her palm with his finger, Emilie would respond out loud. He had to record these conversations with his phone to show doctors that Emilie was responding and able to communicate.

Emilie, who started to lose her hearing in both ears in kindergarten and wore hearing aids, was now blind as a result of the accident. But the question through her physical therapy and recovery was how she could still be an artist.

“After I went blind I was not really sure if I was going to continue being an artist,” Emilie said, stating that she was considering careers in the culinary arts or massage therapy, though never seriously. “So I took two years off from going to school at Cooper and in that time off I was basically learning how to be an independent person again, how to travel, use technology, and cook, everything that people do.”

During those two years, Emilie enrolled at BLIND Inc. in Minneapolis, a school that teaches blind teenagers and adults how to live independently with braille classes, computer classes, and cooking classes. Her favorite class, unsurprisingly, was Industrial Arts, which was in the basement of the school.

“(The Industrial Arts teacher) is the one who really taught me how to use my hands again,” Emilie said. “I never carved sculptures out of wood before but that was something we were doing. He would assign me projects where I would learn how to use a chisel and a mallet and create sculptures with them. He also showed me how to use the lathe to make cups and bowls.”

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It was also around this time when a fellow student encouraged, or “forced” as Emilie described it with a laugh, to enroll into a ceramics class that was at a different school in Minneapolis. She would finish her classes at BLIND Inc. during the day and then get on a bus to the ceramics school in the evenings.

“I was really nervous about doing this because this was after I had been blind for two years,” Emilie said. “I had no idea. I didn’t know what to make. I took the classes and I ended up loving it so much and being really inspired by the medium, and the physicality of it, of working with clay.”

While she was at BLIND Inc. Emilie was included as part of a study for a new piece of technology called the BrainPort Vision Device. Developed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the BrainPort relays information from a tiny camera on a pair of sunglasses to a controller box which converts the camera information into an electrotactile signal. The electrotactile information is presented on the intra-oral display, which is a piece of titanium connected to the BrainPort that users place on their tongue.

Dr. Amy Nau, an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Ophthalmology explained how the device functions to help the blind by relaying visual information, instead of through the eyes to the brain, from the camera through the tongue to the visual receptors in the brain.

“I would describe the BrainPort as a way to enable a perception of the surroundings by using your intact sense of touch,” Dr. Nau said in an email interview.

“Instead of using the hand (for example), the device exploits the existing receptors on the tongue that are able to interpret shape information. An analogy is that (eliminating the taste) it is quite easy to tell the difference between a Life Saver candy and a Starburst candy because one is a circle and the other is a square.

“In this same way, someone using the BrainPort can tell the difference between a door and a chair, providing there is good contrast and there is not excessive visual clutter. In complex environments, using the device can be difficult, in large part because the resolution of the intraoral display has only 400 “pixels”. By comparison, each of our retinas has approximately 125 million photoreceptors processing visual information that goes back to the brain.”

Dr. Nau said her one way to explain what using the BrainPort is like is similar to walking around her home at night without the lights on.

“I can perceive gross shapes, but no detail,” Dr. Nau said. “This will allow me to avoid obstacles, assist with route planning and perhaps grasp a larger object, but does not provide a level of granularity that most people associate with normal vision.”

While Emilie Gossiaux used the BrainPort Device for as a navigational aide while she was at BLIND Inc, she also used it on the weekends to start sketching and doodling again.

“I actually used (the BrainPort Vision Device) to draw,” Emilie said. “Every weekend I had all this time to myself so I set up a table with a gigantic, bright spotlight and I would draw in my 18×24 drawing pad. I would just draw there for hours, learning how to use it. Whatever images I had in my mind, I would sketch it, like doodles. I wasn’t drawing anything from life but more like cartoon doodles. That was always the way I enjoyed drawing.”

Emilie would use some of the drawings from her sketchbook and turn them in to ceramic pieces. One of the doodles she did using the BrainPort vision device eventually became her piece “Bird Sitting” which won the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Award of Excellence in 2013. Emilie has been part of several group and partner exhibitions in New York, Washington D.C., and in London at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, where she sold her first piece. Last year, Emilie graduated from Cooper Union and still works in her studio in New York.

The next few months will also be very busy for the young artist. Emilie will be part of Indigo Mind, a six-week show in San Francisco which opens September 26, that will celebrate the work of neurologist and best-selling author Dr. Oliver Sacks. Emilie’s week, which will be in October, will focus on Dr. Sacks’ book The Mind’s Eye, one of Emilie’s favorite books. In it, Sacks talks about some of his patients that have lost their vision or have other disabilities. One particular story was about a woman with aphasia who could not recognize anything.

“The way (Sacks) was describing how she works in the kitchen, even though she’s not blind, it reminds me a lot of the way I work in the kitchen,” Emilie said. “Because she does everything by smell and by feel. So when she wants a particular spice, she’ll smell all the spices instead of reading the labels.”

Part of Emilie’s Indigo Mind exhibition will be hosting a dinner party at her show, which is something she does because she says cooking and serving food will allow people to use all of their senses while experiencing their art. She also says it creates a sense of community with the audience and brings people together.

“I like the idea of people interacting with my art, so they are not so heavily dependent on the visual aspect of the piece,” Emilie said. “Because with the dinner, it can also be experienced through touch, taste, smell, and hearing.

“During opening night, I want to serve the food to all the dinner guests, with handmade plates and forks. I made the plates with porcelain, and they take the shape and design of those classical pizza paper plates. They aren’t glazed, so after you finish eating, the food will stain the plates like a personal painting… so I designed the forks to kind of take the shape of little cartoon-like hands with 4 fingers, which is funny to me because it plays with the same idea of eating food with your hands.

“I also really like the idea of serving the dinner myself, to flip around the notion of ability/disability. The common misconception people have about people with blindness or other physical disabilities is that they cannot do things on their own, and that they need to have someone there to serve them all the time, but when I served everyone the food that I made, I can enjoy playing the role of being on the other side of the table, as the “servant” and the cook.”

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Emilie will participate in another study and receive a new, updated version of the BrainPort Vision Device later this year. She says one of the things she is most excited about is seeing how her guide dog, London, will look while she uses it.

Despite her success and unique story, Emilie has difficulty with being labeled as an ‘inspiring’ story. She states that she is very lucky but also credits the love and support she has received from her mom.

“She’s been very supportive of me no matter what,” Emilie said about her mother, Susan. “Going back into art school at Cooper after losing my vision, it was always something that she was very supportive of me doing.”

When Susan was asked about what she thought helped her daughter through all the transitions that allowed her to continue her career as an artist, she said is her ability to continue towards her goals.

“Even through her blindness and hearing impaired, Emilie just pushes on,” Susan Gossiaux said. “She’s pushed through so much. I would imagine that is true for anyone who is, at heart, an artist.”

Learn more about the Indigo Mind exhibition, or check out RadioLab to hear a detailed account of Emilie’s accident and recovery.

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