Changing Identities: A Story of Traumatic Injury and Art

From The Fanlight Collection

Directed by Daniel Labbato

57 minutes / Color
Release: 2007
Copyright: 2006

Each year, approximately 1.5 million people have their lives suddenly and irrevocably changed by traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries or stroke. Pat Gardner, a New York Banker, was driving to work when she was hit by another car. The accident left her apparently uninjured. The police who responded to the accident put her on a commuter train to the city, but Pat didn't know who she was or where she was going, and wandered around Penn Station for hours before finally asking for help. While current therapies can leave many people like Pat unable to function, or institutionalized indefinitely, this documentary explores a powerful alternative.

In 1999, retired artist Bill Richards founded The Art Studio at the Northeast Center for Special Care, in upstate New York. It was modeled on a similar program he had created for injured young adults in Harlem. Because Richards believes every person has the ability to become an artist, he doesn't consider the participants as "patients" or "students," nor does he suggest themes, give assignments, teach technique, or offer criticism. The unconventional studio is open all day, allowing patients to come and go as they please. The goal is not art as therapy, but the creation of art for its own sake, and as a means for the artists to rediscover who they are or forge new identities. In addition to Pat, they include: Erich Miethner, a musician who became a quadriplegic after a freak accident; he works with the paint brush held in his mouth; Tusay, a carpenter and poet before his debilitating stroke; and Jurgen Blank, who was stricken by brain tumors as a result of agent-orange exposure.

Today Pat has become an accomplished painter, and takes particular pride in the fact that it is not something she had ever done — or even thought of doing — before. Changing Identities documents the metamorphosis of a number of Art Studio "neighbors" like Pat, as they redefine who they are through this unique studio art program, and begin to see themselves not as people with disabilities but as artists.

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Daniel Labbato
Picture Theory Productions
Narrated by Meryl Streep

Select Accolades

  • Picture This... Disability Film Festival
  • Western Psychological Association
  • National Health Information, Merit Award
  • International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA)
  • WorldFest Houston Film Festival, Bronze Award