Metro Morning

After a concussion smashed her life to pieces, art helped her find her own recovery

In a society that prizes getting "back to normal" after injury, artist Kanika Gupta found an outlet in art that let her throw out conventional ideas about how she should recover from post-concussion syndrome.

Artist Kanika Gupta discovered there was no 'going back' to how she was before, so she found a way forward

Kanika Gupta, who couldn't read or use a computer as she struggled with post-concussion syndrome, said there was an immediate 'magical connection' when she picked up a paintbrush. (Amit Kehar)

At the centre of Kanika Gupta's new solo art exhibition, Rethink Recovery, is a series of bowls.

The first, she explains, is perfect — a ceramic bowl, seamless and unblemished. That's her before her injury.

The second bowl has been smashed to pieces, symbolizing the brain injury that left her unable to work, travel, or even read. Her perfect life, she says, was in pieces.

In the third bowl, she's attempted to reassemble the pieces — the conventional understanding of how recovery should look. They are welded together, but, says Gupta, the pieces "just don't quite fit."

The final two bowls represent everything she's learned in the five years since her concussion. The pieces are re-assembled in new forms, and look nothing like the original bowl, with pieces of ceramic jutting out at new angles and twisting into new shapes. 

Pictured is a sculpture called Recovered 1, the fourth in Gupta's bowl series. (Lakeshore Arts)

In the years before her injury, art was never something Gupta considered doing. 

But on Thursday, she welcomed visitors to see the new shapes her life has taken at the opening of her exhibition at Lakeshore Arts, located at Lake Shore Boulevard West near Superior Avenue in Etobicoke.

The exhibition, which runs from Nov. 7 to Dec. 2, is held in an accessible space designed to accommodate people with post-concussion syndrome by limiting light and noise. 

A life put on hold

The story of Gupta's recovery and how she turned to art to heal herself is a powerful one.

When she met with her doctor after suffering a concussion, she was told she would make a full recovery in two days.

After that, she hoped, life would return to normal — she'd go back to her active, high-energy life of work and travel.

The two days passed. Nothing changed.

"I was still in bed, unable to do anything, and those days turned into weeks, turned into months, of just waiting," remembered Gupta in an interview on CBC's Metro Morning.

Gupta, shown holding one of her own photographs, believes the medical community understands concussions and their lasting effects better now then when she was diagnosed five years ago. (Amit Kehar)

Gupta had developed post-concussion syndrome and was unable to read, watch TV, or use a computer. She felt that her life had been put on hold, held back by symptoms like fatigue, light sensitivity and pain.

"If you can imagine, in an instant, my life just got shrunk to the four walls of my bedroom," she said.

Salvation in a paintbrush

Lying in bed, deeply bored, art seemed like an unlikely direction for her to take. "Art is an activity that really never entered my life or piqued my interest," said Gupta.

But her mother handed her a paintbrush, and with nothing to lose, she dove in.

A magnifying glass held up to one of Gupta's pieces. Many of the pieces in her exhibition have an interactive element and 'multi-sensory' components. (Amit Kehar)

"It was such a magical connection instantly, I put a paintbrush to a canvas and it felt so right and so special. For one, it was something I could do, which was kind of a miracle. At the time I had a really hard time reading but I could paint," she said.

As she continued to make art, it became a way for her to explore what she was going through, ultimately changing the way she conceived of recovery. 

The fixation on getting "back to normal," of recovery as a linear process with a fixed end point, she said, isn't helping anyone.

"That definition is very limiting; it implies going back in time, going back to a prior state — and life is something that moves forward," she said.

Finding new wholeness

By creating art that expressed how she felt, Gupta came to realize that all the things she'd lost through her injury were not gone.

As she wrestled with post-concussion syndrome, Gupta began writing about her experience, publishing articles that explained what it's like to walk in her shoes. She continued to make art, using clay, paint, film and ink. 

Gupta has written about her struggle to socialize and spend time in the outside world given her symptoms, which include sensitivity to noise and light, as well as fatigue and pain. (Amit Kehar)

"All of the things I was waiting to get back, those have been with me all along. It's just they're a little different now." 

With files from Metro Morning