'An invisible injury': How May Mutter is using body art to talk about concussions

After suffering four concussions in three weeks in 2013, May Mutter turned to art to explain her symptoms. Her new book, A Caged Mind, was released last week.

Local artist found expressing her symptoms through art was more powerful than using words

May Mutter had difficulties expressing her concussion symptoms with words, so she turned to body art — and those body paintings are found in A Caged Mind, a new book launched this week in Ottawa. (Bing Wen)

After suffering four concussions in three weeks in 2013, May Mutter turned to art to understand her symptoms.

The Ottawa artist has since compiled photos of her body paintings — paintings she drew on nearly 40 people who'd also had concussions — into a book called A Caged Mind.

The book was unveiled in Ottawa on Thursday night.

"This is an invisible injury," Mutter told CBC Radio's All in a Day before the book launch.

"You can't see it, and its hard to explain to people what you're going through when they don't necessarily see it ... By painting it, you have more of an understanding."

Mutter said her subjects often had a key word they would use in describing their concussion symptoms. (Bethany Barrette)

'I feel very caged'

The idea to use art rather than words came to Mutter after a friend challenged her on Facebook to illustrate what her concussion meant to her.

So Mutter drew herself behind bars — and that drawing is now on the cover of A Caged Mind.

"I'm still the same person that I was pre-injury. I still want to do the same things, play sports, play video games," Mutter said, adding that her symptoms can prevent her from doing those sorts of everyday things.

"I feel very caged, very imprisoned."

Two of the 40 subjects May Mutter painted for her book A Caged Mind, which explores how concussion sufferers deal with their experiences. (Christina McNabb/William Scobie)

After that first drawing, Mutter reached out to other people who'd suffered concussions and were also having difficulty explaining their symptoms with words. 

She met them and asked about their experiences — and then drew representations of those experiences on the people themselves.

The art was then photographed for the book.

"The day would be very full of exchanging stories. And we would cut each other off, almost, because finally you're talking to someone who completely understands what you're going through," Mutter said.

Mutter said she hopes her book can empower concussed individuals to be able to express their symptoms. (Karen Boissonneault-Gauthier)

Stories from across the globe

One woman said her concussion made her feel as if she'd lost control, so Mutter painted her body as if she was a marionette.

Another woman was a boxer — so Mutter painted bruises and other injuries, in an attempt to illustrate the unseen pain she was experiencing.

People from across the world — some as far away as Ireland and New Zealand — reached out, Mutter said, asking to be involved in the project.

The feedback, she said, has been "emotional."

"I had just one [subject] email me this past week [tsaying she was] so excited for the book launch," Mutter said.  "She was saying that this is what gave her the strength to talk about her concussion."

Mutter is donating the proceeds from A Caged Mind to the Love Your Brain foundation.

People from as far away as Ireland and New Zealand shared their stories with Mutter for the project. (Justin van Leeuwen)