After an accident that left her dead, a second life as an artist

Vanessa Zita Vanderidder's career in education was derailed when she was hit in the head by a boulder. So, she learned to paint.

An Ontario woman's career was derailed by a traumatic brain injury. So, she learned to paint.

Artist Vanessa Zita Vanderidder stands in front of her painting, titled Black Submarine. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Vanessa Zita Vanderidder died in 2006. 

At least, that's what emergency crews thought at first.

Vanderidder had been sitting in her car when an errant, 20-pound boulder flew off the back of a dump truck, striking her in the skull. Her head was cut open, taking a chunk of skull with it and exposing her front temporal lobe.

"All of the sudden, I came back to life [and] saw the scene of the accident," said Vanderidder. "It was a bad scene."

Vanderidder blacked out again, and was intubated and taken taken to hospital where she underwent a number of surgeries.

It was the beginning of a long recovery process.

"The first year was absolutely brutal," she said.

Journey to recovery

Following the accident, Vanderidder spent her days shuffling between rehabilitational programs, re-learning basic skills like how to speak and write her name. Although Vanderidder says she had a great care team, she says therapy was a constant reminder of how much work she still had to do.

Then, an epiphany in the aisles of a Dollarama: finger paint.

Painting helped me from going bonkers I think.- Vanessa Zita Vanderidder

 Vanderidder, who had previously worked with people with disabilities or acquired brain injuries, knew that finger painting was helpful for redeveloping fine motor skills.

"I saw the canvas, saw the paint, and I'm like 'I'm doing this tonight,'" said Vanderidder. 

Painting, she said, was a way for her to take control of her recovery—and for only a dollar.

"When you're not working any more... That was something I could afford," Vanderidder said. 

Soon, she was moving on to bigger and bigger canvases, and experimenting with different types of paint. 

Before long, painting became a kind of addiction: a way for Vanderidder to express her emotions, and create something using her own two hands.

"Painting kept me from going bonkers I think," said Vanderidder.

Vanderidder then began giving paintings as gifts, and, later, selling them. Her first sale was organized through a friend who worked in interior design, and the painting in question wound up featured in an interior decorating magazine. 

"I think that's when it started to click," said Vanderidder. 

Paintings on display at Western

Since then, the commissions have kept coming.

Three of Vanderidder's paintings—Driving Home, White Out and Black Submarine—hang in the BrainsCAN department of Western University's new $47-million dollar interdisciplinary research building, which opens Friday. 

BrainsCAN is working with a $66-million dollar grant from the Canadian government to better diagnose and treat brain disorders.

Three of Vanderidder's paintings are on display at Western University's new interdisciplinary research building. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Vanderidder's work was a perfect fit, said BrainsCAN executive director Fay Harrison.

"She's an artist and she's a survivor," said Harrison. "Those are really important messages for us to stand behind and advocate to communities that we hope we will impact with our research."

Vanderidder said she threw her weight behind the project because she knows firsthand the importance of having a strong support network.

She hopes her paintings will help inspire others who've gone through similar traumas.

"To be in my position, to feel the impact… I don't have words to describe how important these people are," she said. 

Vanderidder just moved into a new building herself, having acquired a new studio in downtown London. She says she has big plans to keep painting.

"To have my own studio, to have my own place, to have an alarm in the morning for a reason to go somewhere... That's pretty important," she said. 

"To be where I am now... I'm still pinching myself."