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Omaha students with spinal cord injuries and disabilities had opportunity to show their feelings through art

OMAHA, Nebraska – It’s not every day that you get the chance to have your body painted for the purpose of scientific study and artistic expression.

“I called up my friend Racheal and said, ‘hey, I have this great idea to do some body paint and photographs, do you want to be involved?'” says Amiey Elsasser, a student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha majoring in medical humanities and minoring in studio art. “I have this great idea to do some body paint and photographs, do you want to be involved?”

Elsasser is integrating both of her areas of study into one final project in preparation for her graduation, and she is using body paint.

But not on anybody and everybody.

According to Rachael Johnson, Elsasser’s first model, “I was thinking that this was the best day when I got the call from her, it felt so serendipitous,” when she received the call from Elsasser.

Johnson, who is now a quadriplegic, adds, “In 2013, I was in an automobile accident that involved a rollover, and after that, I went through an entire year of rehabilitation.”

One of the many functions that the art research project does is to promote inclusion.

Elsasser is quoted as saying, “I want to bring more attention to the participation of people with impairments in the arts.”

“I’d seen body painting, but I hadn’t seen people with such a noticeable impairment being represented through an art medium like this or really in any form of media at all,” Johnson continues. “I’d seen people with tattoos, but I hadn’t seen people with prosthetics.”

This project creates a graphic representation of the sensations and pains that individuals who have suffered spinal cord injuries may and cannot feel.

“All of the paint is chosen by them, the sensations that they want to express through the paint is chosen by them, so I’m really just kind of helping narrate and paint the story rather than like telling the story for them, it’s all their story, and I’m just documenting it,” says Elsasser. “I’m really just kind of helping narrate and paint the story.”

In addition, it demonstrates that no two spinal cord injuries are the same.

Paraplegic Nancy Berg, who was 16 years old when she was injured in a car accident that left her a paraplegic, likens a spinal cord damage to a person’s “fingerprint.” She explains that even if two people break the same part of their spinal cord, they might not have the same feelings and might have different levels of mobility.

Both Berg and Johnson had their bodies painted by Elsasser, and they are hoping that it will give individuals who are on the outside looking in a new feeling of understanding of what it is like to be on the inside.

“Silently, people might see like, yes I’m paralyzed and just assume I can’t move my legs, and this and that,” Johnson says. “They don’t tend to know that I’m not paraplegic, I’m quadriplegic, I broke my neck and due to the level I was injured, I don’t have hand movement, and a lot of the sensations even in my upper body, my arms, my fingers and palms of my hands, everything’

She goes on to say, “I have nerve pain that is so strange that sometimes it feels like electricity in certain parts of my body, well constantly in my legs it feels like electricity, in parts of my arms it feels like frostbite sometimes, and that just varies and changes, and I would love for people to have a greater understanding of paralysis is not just that, it’s so much more,” she says.

Johnson and Berg both feel that as a result of their participation in the study and witnessing the results, they discovered something new about themselves.

Berg explains, “I had a concept in my brain as to what I could feel and what I couldn’t feel, but via her mapping out my body, I was able to experience more than I believed I was capable of.” “I just thought it was really great to literally see my body painted instead of just thinking in my brain what I can and can’t feel; to actually see it on my body was quite wonderful,” she said. “It’s just that I’m used to thinking about what I can and can’t feel.”

“We painted a zone on my arms, chest, and shoulders pink to signify what I love, what I appreciate, and that’s the area I can still feel, I have normal sensation,” says Johnson. “That’s the region I can still feel, I have normal sensation.” “To physically see that that section of pink was actually so small in the photos, I thought it was bigger, I thought I could feel more, but that actually was so encouraging, and it just made me grateful to see that I actually thought I had more feeling than I do because I’m just so in tune with my body now, and I’m so in touch with what I can feel and I’m not focused on what I can’t,” she explained. “To physically see that that section of pink was actually so small in the photos

Elsasser has high expectations that the listeners would also acquire new knowledge, just like she did.

“Just to be able to listen to it has been such a gift, and to be able to assist them tell their narrative in the background, cause it’s images of them, not me,” she says. “It’s been extremely eye-opening for me to see the other side of things, and just to be able to listen to it has been such a blessing.”

Email her at [email protected] if you are interested in this project or any of the other projects that Elsasser will be working on in the future.

You may find further images from the project as well as upcoming publications on Instagram at the handle @arts based research.

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