By Victoria Dalkey
Bee Art Correspondent
(Published March 4, 2001)
Elisa Terranova's painting "All the King's Horses and All the King's Men" is a double self-portrait before and after the tragic accident that changed her life forever. On Nov. 2, 1980, a car-train collision left Terranova a quadriplegic who would never be able to walk or use her hands again.
The painting, says Terranova, deals with the challenges she faced after the crash. On the left, an able-bodied Terranova strides forth, strong and whole. On the right, she confronts the viewer painfully as her body opens up to reveal internal organs and blood vessels. She is surrounded in the circular composition by a figure representing death, a surgeon with his hands bound behind his back, a screaming woman floating in the sky, and a ghostly figure with a train conductor's hat that separates the two versions of herself. "I was in the intensive care unit for 60 days and didn't know if I would make it," Terranova recalls. "Since then, I've had nine major surgeries and numerous facial reconstructions. My whole body has been rerouted. I'm in constant pain, but I'm so glad to be here."
Terranova, who moved.....from the Southwest three years ago with her husband, Mark, sees her paintings as arenas in which she deals with her pain; they are primarily self-portraits with themes of isolation and disability.
Many of her images are confrontational and disturbing. In "Up From the Ashes," she depicts herself as a disemboweled bride standing in front of a circus freak-show banner. In other works, she is pierced by arrows or has a slice of her torso removed, revealing the viscera inside. "I love portraying myself as a martyr," Terranova says. "It's a release, a catharsis. The sadder the paintings are, the happier I get. But it's not because I want sympathy. I want people to say, 'Look at how that woman has suffered, but look at what she has accomplished.' "
What she has accomplished is impressive. After her accident, she decided to take a painting class with the hope that it would improve her motor skills. Using a special hand rig, she began teaching herself how to mix colors and apply paint. "I immediately felt an obsessive love for painting," she says. "It was like a fish discovering water. I was completely hooked on it, and 20 years later, I still am."
Realizing that art had therapeutic value as a vehicle of self-expression, she began creating a visual diary that documented her life from the perspective of her physical challenges. In 1993, she received a master of fine arts degree from Arizona State University, where she earned many awards and scholarships for outstanding achievement.
Encouraged by a professor to show her work, she has exhibited in many nationally juried shows and has had five solo exhibitions, including one at San Francisco State University. Now she is ready to make her debut on the Sacramento scene in a big way. "Discovered" by Sacramento artist Mick Sheldon through an article on her work in Juxtapoz magazine, Terranova will share the space at the Center for Contemporary Art this month with three of Sacramento's top artists -- Troy Dalton, Kim Scott and Sheldon -- in a show titled "Odd Images of the Self." Concurrently, she will have a solo show at the James Kaneko Gallery at American River College.
Terranova, whose father was a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service, was born in 1954 in Liberia, and lived in Africa, Spain, Yugoslavia, Pakistan and France. As a young person, she enjoyed visiting museums and seeing great art that has influenced her work, but she never thought of painting until after her accident. "At first I was doing raw, awkward, angry paintings about myself," Terranova says. "Then I discovered Frida Kahlo and was blown away by the similarities of our predilection for self-documentation." Terranova was also influenced by surrealists, especially Salvador Dali. Her work is a combination of the visual hyperbole we associate with Dali; the confrontational and disturbing self-revelation of Kahlo; and the Christian iconography of the Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque periods.
Currently she is at work on a large painting of herself in a full-figure bra, holding up a paintbrush, symbol of her power, in a garden filled with references to the myth of Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld. While there, Persephone partook of the pomegranate, a food Hades had forbidden her to eat, and was condemned to stay in hell except for three months in the spring, when she was allowed to visit her mother on Earth. The dynamic Baroque composition teems with allegorical symbols. Terranova's husband, Mark, wrapped in a snake representing Hades, cries as another image of Terranova sinks in cold, icy water. A pomegranate floats in the upper left corner, and flowers -- magnolias and hydrangeas -- abound. An arrangement of Mexican sugar skulls next to Terranova marks the painting as a vanitas scene, one that symbolizes the ephemeral nature of beauty and life. "I think we can all identify with Persephone," Terranova says. "Everybody eats that pomegranate seed and is chained to hell in some way."
Describing herself as an atheist with a spiritual nature, Terranova delights in using the rich tradition of Christian symbolism for her own purposes. She describes "Madonna of the Corn," a departure from her usual 5-by-7-foot paintings, as a one-liner."Corn is often seen as a symbol of fertility. In this painting, I am saying 'up yours' to the belief that we should go forth and populate the Earth. What about those who don't want to or can't?" "Madonna of the Sunflowers" comes close to expressing Terranova's own spiritual beliefs. For her, flowers are a symbol of beauty, which is evanescent but omnipresent in nature."If there is a god, it is nature," she says. "We get our energy from nature. That's why I love flowers, especially sunflowers."The cherries at the top symbolize the sweetness of life, and the blood dripping from them the pain that is always lurking in the background. Despite the pain, life is grand. Life is to be lived."
"Triumph Of A Martyr"
Elisa Terranova chronicles her physical struggles through art
By Carli Cutchin
This article was printed from the Arts & lifestyle section of the Reno News & Review.
It's hard to know where to begin.
Standing in front of Elisa Terranova's massive narrative paintings, I find no definitive hero and villain, no immediately evident right and wrong, no clear narrative. Often, the cast of characters is so varied, so obscure, so allegorical, it would take an encyclopedia of religious iconography and a vivid imagination to even begin to unpack the painting's meaning.
The search for meaning in Terranova's work, now on display at the Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery in Diary of a Martyr, does have a clear starting point, though. It must always begin with her one re-occurring figure, a mestiza woman whom Terranova casts at times as the troubled victim and at other times as the triumphant heroine. This character is often supported by back or neck braces; her skin is frequently crisscrossed by stitches; her internal organs are sometimes painted so as to appear outside her skin. Yet she remains, in each work, intensely beautiful.
This is Elisa Terranova herself--the martyr.
In 1980, Terranova was involved in a near-fatal car crash. Through physical therapy, she was able to regain some use of her arms--about 80 percent--but her legs and hands have been completely paralyzed ever since. In the years following her accident, Terranova began taking art classes and eventually received a master of fine arts at Arizona State University. Wearing a hand brace that pinches her fingers together, Terranova is able to hold a paintbrush; she then uses her arm muscles to direct her hands across the canvas.
"I want people to know what I've gone through, [not to feel sorry for me], but to say, 'Look what this person has accomplished,' " Terranova says. "The paintings are my accomplishment."
And they truly are a magnificent accomplishment. A few works are pure portraiture, but most are densely populated with rich, allegorical figures. "All the King's Horses and All the King's Men," for instance, is a "double self-portrait" that portrays a pre- and post-accident Terranova.
This is not simply a depiction of the artist, however. It's a dramatic portrayal of events surrounding her accident and operation. One of the most notable figures is (presumably) her operating surgeon, a naked man with a surgeon's cap and mask. His hands are bound behind his back, yet he clasps a weapon--a surgical knife. Another figure seems to symbolize death; he's dressed in a black cape and holding a rose that drips with blood.
Many of Terranova's works are strongly influenced by early Mexican art, an art Terranova calls "extremely melodramatic" and free of "polite Jesus figures." She draws on a variety of religious and cultural traditions, but says that Catholic imagery is her primary inspiration. "Madonna of the Corn" and "Madonna of the Sunflowers" both draw upon, yet subvert this Catholic symbolism. "In Madonna of the Corn," Terranova's arms are crossed in what she calls the French "up yours" gesture.
"Corn symbolizes fertility," Terranova says. "[I'm saying] 'up yours' to the Catholic notion that a woman's ... destiny is to conceive and bear children."
Terranova says that by drawing upon iconography and allegory, she is able to dramatize her own struggle, to "vicariously project attitudes and feelings" that her body can no longer express and to glorify her "role as a martyr."
"I'm fascinated by the idea of icons," Terranova says. "I love physical narratives. I love mythological narratives. I take bits and pieces of them. I take all these influences and distill them down to my own personal poetry."
Once Terranova's roles as artist, victim, martyr and irreverent Madonna come into focus, a wonderful story begins to unfold. We see war, marriage, love and death through the lens of Terranova's fascinating visual diary. And the story becomes even more extraordinary when you remember that its author has neither feeling nor movement in her hands.
"But talent lies in the brain," Terranova explains. "Not in the hand."
Diary of a Martyr will be on display through Nov. 8 at the Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery, inside the Church Fine Arts Complex at the University of Nevada, Reno. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Call 784-6658.
Copyright ©2001 Chico Community Publishing, Inc.