Her Guide Dog Inspired Her Art, and Stars in Her Museum Show

How does it feel to have your life change in an instant?

Emilie Gossiaux She was an art student at Cooper Union in 2010 when she was hit by an 18-wheeler while riding her bicycle in Brooklyn. Taken to Bellevue Hospital, she had suffered a traumatic brain injury, a stroke and multiple fractures. While Gossiaux eventually regained life, she had lost her sense of sight. She struggled to decide if she could, or even wanted to, continue making art.

“I had to adjust that framework in my head of what it means to be an artist,” said Gossiaux, now 34, who had always viewed her ability to draw and paint as “my absolute superpower.”

From the age of 4, what he liked to do most was copy cartoons from television. Growing up in New Orleans, she charged other children 25 cents apiece for the drawing lessons she gave them on the playground during recess. At age 5 she began to experience hearing loss, which only increased her attention to images and facial expressions.

“I just became more aware of using my vision,” said Gossiaux, who now wears hearing aids. “That was my way of learning and understanding.” He then attended specialized art high schools, where he envisioned a future life as an artist with major museum exhibitions. At Cooper Union, in his delicate, stylized drawings and sculptures, he favored the figurative and the handmade, using tactile craft materials such as plaster and hair.

But after the accident that blinded her, Gossiaux had to confront “an inner capacity” that told her she would never be able to work at the same ambitious level or work 15-hour days as before in the studio. She spent 11 months in a training center called BLIND incorporated in Minneapolis, learning skills to navigate the world independently, including using a white cane.

“Once I started doing that on my own, I imagined myself in a video game,” she said, “playing to win.”

There, in the carpentry shop, he also learned to translate images in his mind using hand-to-hand coordination, rather than eye-to-hand.

When you draw, you place the paper on a rubber pad called Sensational slate which enhances the lines as you draw with one hand, following with the other hand to feel the images.

“I’m using one hand to ‘see’ and the other to carve, draw or manipulate” the object, explained Gossiaux, who returned to Cooper Union, where he graduated in 2014.

And he learned to listen to his body and recognize the importance of rest and bed as a place to freely imagine his ideas. Only then did she feel that he could be an artist again.

“I allowed myself to daydream about the work I wanted to do and not be so rigid,” said Gossiaux, petite and beatific, sitting in her studio on the Queens Museumwhere he has resided for a year for a Jerome Foundation Grant for Emerging Artists.

This week, Gossiaux’s youthful dream comes true with Wednesday’s opening of “Another world” his first solo exhibition in a museum, which will be open until April 7. Celebrate your 13-year-old guide dog London and your mutual dependence on him. “I protect her and she protects me,” Gossiaux said. On a more universal scale, her art appears to remove barriers between animals and the rest of the natural world.

The installation consists of three papier-mâché sculptures of hybrid dog-women (London versions, scaled to Gossiaux’s height of five feet) dancing on their hind legs. They toast around a mayo, which here is a monumental white cane. Fantastic and serene, the Londons hold colorful felt straps that flow from the top of the 15-foot-tall cane, unrestricted.

Brightly painted paper mache flowers are scattered across the wide circular platform. Trees topped with a canopy of 600 individually made paper mache leaves wrap the gallery walls like a three-dimensional collage.

Three whimsical pencil and crayon studies hang on one wall, one with iterations of London floating happily. “The sheer joy of her work almost bounces off the page,” said Sarah Cho, assistant curator at the Queens Museum and a member of the jury that selected Gossiaux for the residency from about 380 applicants. “There is a vibrating movement in the way the flowers are drawn, the petals seem to flutter.”

Gossiaux has worked with London, an English Labrador retriever, for 10 years and describes her as “mischievous and a little bossy.” Their bond strengthened when the artist began graduate studies at Yale in 2017, where she felt very alone for what she said was the first time. “London became my constant,” she said. “She really wanted intimacy and closeness.”

He explored his attachment in sculptures included in his open call exhibition at The Shed, “True love will find you in the end” and in the group exhibition “Crip Time” at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, in which two dog-women were acquired.

Gossiaux said his current work about London has been influenced by the writer. Diana Harawaywhose feminist theories consider relationships between species as a model to break all types of hierarchies, whether patriarchal or economic.

“What would happen if we didn’t center the perspective around humans?” Cho said. “Emilie’s combination of human and animal bodies almost makes you feel like you’re in this world with them.”

Andrew Leland, whose memoir “The Land of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight” chronicles his experience with gradual vision loss, couldn’t stop thinking about a drawing he found last year at the Gossiaux exhibit. “Significant Otherness” at Mother Gallery in TriBeCa. Leland acquired the piece “London, Midsummer No. 1,” which the Queens Museum has brought to three-dimensional life, comparing its “elegant rudimentaryity” to the cheerful figures of “The Dance” by Matisse.

“Emotionally, the cane, for me, is the most stigmatized aspect of this highly stigmatized disability: it marks you instantly,” he said. “Emilie really experienced the experience of being a blind person in the world and she found this image of freedom that is deeply meaningful to me.”

Gossiaux’s drawing became the springboard for a chapter in Leland’s book on the relationship of blind people to visual culture. “Having someone like Emilie make a work that is on the international art market goes against the image that so many people still have in 2023 of a blind person as fundamentally incompetent,” she said. “Blind people not only have an interest in visual culture, but they produce it and advance it.”

Artist Finnegan Shannon, who experiences pain when walking or standing, invited Gossiaux to contribute to a handicap-access fantasy in Shannon’s exhibition. “I don’t care if I do” through January 7 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland. Gossiaux created 3D-printed ceramics of London’s body parts, including her tongue and a paw, which circulate around the room on a conveyor belt alongside works by other artists, brought to viewers who can relax in plush seating.

“I really respond to the play of Emilie’s play,” Shannon said, adding that people in mainstream culture tend to talk about disability in dark terms, “it’s always a fun contrast to my experience as a disabled person, where there is a lot of humor. “

“I’m so excited about the way Emilie weaves together these very specific experiences she has in her daily life,” Shannon said.

Gossiaux’s process always begins with drawing. Extract visual, muscular and tactile memory from him. “I know what London is like because I’ve seen Labradors before, but I can also feel her body by petting her and playing with her, by feeling her face,” said Gossiaux, who always completes a drawing in one sitting. of energy. “I also draw from my dreams because they are still very vivid.”

When she translates drawings into sculpture, her life partner and studio assistant, Kirby Thomas Kersels, helps her measure and shape the Styrofoam pieces. Gossiaux applies layers of paper mache and then paints them, using her fingers instead of a brush. “I’ve found ways to make it a more tactile experience,” she said.

The artist will lead two “tactile tours” of her installation at the museum for blind and low-vision visitors on January 21 and April 7. “I think of touch as a love language; It’s very intimate,” said Gossiaux, who worked as educator at the Metropolitan Museum giving tours to visually impaired audiences for five years before the pandemic.

Gossiaux’s ability to verbally describe works has helped Cho, the curator, write better audio descriptions. (Kersels, who lives with Gossiaux and London, said she first fell in love with the artist when she visited a class at Yale and heard her present a student sculpture.)

Gossiaux’s daily presence in Queens has helped boost the museum’s efforts to increase accessibility. To facilitate Gossiaux’s freedom of movement, staff installed raised tactile lines on the floors of all office and studio spaces, and Braille on kitchen surfaces. In galleries, it now offers audio descriptions for each piece of art.

The artist and research professor. Liza Sylvestre, who is deaf and also participated in the Frankfurt exhibition “Crip Time,” said the Queens Museum has likely learned a lot from the Gossiaux residency. “In museums a lot of attention has been paid to accessibility programs and perhaps less to support for artists. with disabilities and their particular way of moving through the world,” Sylvestre said.

Gossiaux considers herself an activist for justice for people with disabilities and points out that for the first time in her work she has included the white cane, a tool of her own independence. “Being in the world with my white cane, or with London, would be a hindrance and would upset people,” she said. “But I feel like I’m being denied the right to be there or even exist.

“YO want the white cane to hinder people,” he added with gentle forcefulness. “YO want that takes over the space.”

Emilie L. Gossiaux: Another world

December 6-April 7, Queens Museum, New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, (718) 592-9700; queensmuseum.org.

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