Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Capturing recovery from trauma on canvas

Eliette Markhbein
New York, United States


Her biography

I came to painting as a result of trauma. A journalist covering arts and culture for European and American magazines for 25 years, I suffered a traumatic brain and spine injury in 2004, the consequence of being struck by a speeding car. I picked up brushes a year after my injury as a respite from intense rehabilitation, to ease the pain and search for answers within. The brain injury had wiped out some of my executive functions: processing speed, psychomotor speed, verbal memory, and word retrieval, and I had to contend with a level of anxiety and emotional distress I had never encountered before. I found peace, strength, and clarity in the painting process.

Half way through my rehabilitation, I became passionate about the power of the arts to heal from trauma and in 2006 founded the Therapeutic Arts Program at the Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Center in New York, NY. The program offers patients in the spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation units a non-medical approach to recovery. By fostering patients’ creativity and facilitating painting I help paraplegic and quadriplegic patients as well as patients with strokes, brain tumors, or traumatic brain injuries set in motion their own healing process. By encouraging them to express themselves through painting, I sustain their efforts in meeting their challenges and overcoming their struggles: from the initial shock; the mental, physical and emotional chaos created by the abruptness of their injury; the pain, anger, denial and depression; the grueling physical and cognitive re-education; to the discovery of their inner strength and potential; the acceptance and integration of their new self and the affirmation of their survivor’s identity.

My art mirrors my interior landscape. It reflects the existentialist challenge to redefine myself, to live a meaningful life, and to actively contribute to society. As such, it is a road map for my work with patients facing the same questions. Conversely, my work with patients strengthens me. It gives me a deep reverence for the endurance and inventiveness of the human spirit while informing my painting in subtle ways.


Her work





FIREFLIES: acrylic on paper (20”x 26”) – 2006

After the injury, thoughts like fireflies in the night flashed my conscience, but mostly alluded capture. At times, I felt surrounded by a void in which thoughts would birth and die so fast I could not hold on to them. The trace they left unsettled me and sent my brain into a flurry to try to recapture them, resulting in neurological distress and an enormous amount of frustration, which often led to outbursts of tears and sobbing. It took many sessions of cognitive remediation and the learning and practicing of compensatory techniques to be able to retain thoughts long enough to process, organize, and articulate them.





BLUE ROOM: acrylic on canvas (24”x 30”) – 2006

Blue Room attempts to depict the quietness, stillness, peace and shelter my Bose headphones (the suggestion of one of my therapists) provided me. It also represents the sense of structure I felt listening to music, a welcome treat in the state of mental chaos my brain struggled with.

NEW WORLD: mixed media – 2007

After drawing the figure in charcoal, ink and graphite and coloring the scene with acrylic paint, I photographed the painting and double exposed it to impart movement and blurriness – to portray my fragility and uncertainty in my world after Traumatic Brain Injury. This mixed media piece addresses the physical, emotional, and cognitive issues I faced when entering my new life: changes in perceptions, kinetic adjustments, search for identity, lack of motivation and clarity, fear and vulnerability.







ASSEMBLAGE: acrylic on paper (20” x 26”) – 2008
I painted Assemblage while still uncertain and wary of my transformation. It speaks of gathering all the pieces of my life after my injury, and also illustrates my search to assemble the pieces of the puzzle into a new identity and a new physical person. Inevitably it comprises a black hole: the representation of the grief for all that was lost, my pre-injury life, my roles in it, as well as the seamless way my brain used to function. Colors mean different things to different people. Red in my work is almost always associated with pain. While a bright and cheerful painting at first sight, on second reading, seething pain is still salient at this point of my life though with gradations, while a small amount of peace, in light blue, starts to form at the base of the painting.







WHOLE: acrylic on canvas (6’ x 8’) – 2009

Whole illustrates the acceptance of my disability and of myself as a full person, including the mental, physical and emotional scars the injury inflicted on me and my connectedness and place in the universe and within society. Working for the first time on a 6’x 8’ canvas and wearing a full torso brace (TLSO) was not only a physical challenge, but a mental battle as well, due to the scale of the painting. As I proceeded with the dimension and arrangement of the forms, they took a life on their own. They developed and altered their positions and relations to each other many times, resulting in scars on the surface of the painting, which I wholly embraced as a similarity of my experience with disability. As the structure expanded in tones and shapes to form a harmonious whole, the outline overruled the size of the canvas, connecting the visual representation to something larger than the painting, outside its physical boundaries. Painting Whole gave me self confidence and a sense of calm determination. Maybe too much. I am currently working on an 8’x10’ painting. “Qué sera sera!”




ELIETTE MARKHBEIN is the founder of the Therapeutic Arts Program, an Art in Medicine Program serving the TBI population. Eliette is formally trained in Studio Arts, as well as Neuro Art Therapy and Rehabilitation Psychology. For more information please visit the following website: www.eliettemarkhbein.racheldeutsch.com.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2009- Volume 1, Issue 5
Fall 2009  |  Sections  |  Art Essays

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