Downtown gallery exhibits beauty in the eyes of brain-injured artists

Downtown gallery exhibits beauty in the eyes of brain-injured artists

Hilltop life adjustment artists Julie Rhodes and Kirt Fowler look at their pieces at the Expressions of Life art show at the Colorad Canyons Gallery in Grand Junction Friday.



ehold the beauty in the eyes of Penny, a pensive peccary with blue-green peepers capable of capturing the attention of even the dullest art connoisseur. A lustrous brown coif, pearly white scruff and hairless pink ears complete the wistful hamster’s profile.

Set against a deep blue sky, Penny’s is an image born of the imagination of an artist in residence at Hilltop’s Life Adjustment Program, a program for people with traumatic brain injury. Penny’s creator is Jeni LeVan, 31, of Grand Junction, one of 11 who debuted their work last week on First Friday at Colorado Canyons Gallery & Gifts, 623 Main St.

LeVan said she chose the subject because of a childhood love for hamsters that persisted through the years. The hamster’s tranquil teal eyes are unusual for an animal normally born with black ones.

It seems LeVan’s affection for the tiny mammal is reflected in its gaze. Green is a color that tends to soothe and comfort the beholder, while teal, a hue of green, reflects “emotional health and stability,” according to a 2005 Yale University study.

LeVan explains it this way: “I saw a color that really caught my eye — that aqua, light green — then I saw a lightish ocean-blue, and then green, and I put them all together,” she said, seated in a wheelchair with a group of 10 other Hilltop artists, their friends and family.

The color choice reflects a top priority at the Life Adjustment Program, according to Angie Wickersham, assistant director of clinical services.

Working with art can’t cure brain injury or mitigate its debilitating effects, but for many, the act of imagining and creating provides a pleasurable, relaxing experience that improves quality of life, Wickersham said.

“Really, what we try to do is to help them have the highest quality of life possible while living with as much independence as they can, but at a level that is safe for them,” she said.

Piera Kllanxhja, art teacher at Hilltop for 21 years, teaches to the level of each student.

“Every student is different,” she said. “They might need a different height to draw from or some other adjustments because of a physical disability — most of them have been in an accident. Or their minds might just get stuck and if I show them just a little bit, their minds open up.”

Soon, Kllanxhja will teach her 2016 class of about 15 residents how to “throw clay,” she said.

“The title of the show is ‘The Play,’ ” said Mike Green, Hilltop marketing and communications director. “The exhibit is about celebrating their lives because so much of their lives becomes about what they’ve lost, what they can’t do. This celebrates what they can do.”

Hilltop plans to repeat the inaugural exhibit for many years to come, Green said.

Anyone could become an exhibitor next year, when they least expect it, Wickersham said. But for the grace of God and good luck, anyone could find themselves facing the challenge of a debilitating brain injury, she said.

“Quicker than you can snap your fingers, your life is changed forever,” she said. “Every one of these artists lived full, extensive lives. We’ve got people on our campus who were Olympic swimmers and rodeo stars. These people had amazing lives — and just like that, it changed forever.”

The brain-injured residents remember their old lives, Wickersham said, but art helps ease the memories because it adds value to the quality of their new lives.

Art is a good fit for those whose brain injury presents day-to-day challenges that sometimes weigh them down, said LeVan, a resident of the Hilltop program for about four years. She enjoys the love and support of a close-knit family.

“(Art) is very good (for them) because it gets their mind off the daily routine: You know, ‘What am I going to eat, what am I going to talk about?’ ” said Kllanxhja, a potter and fine art photographer who exhibits her Oriental-influenced crystal glazing techniques at Colorado Canyons Gallery.

“Art encourages them to start imagining things like how life was, or what it could be, so they create their own world, which is what art is really all about,” Kllanxhja said.

The experience soothes the minds of LeVan, injured in a firearms accident when she was 16, and others who live in the Life Adjustment Program because of car crashes, slip and falls, and in one case, a lightning strike.

“It’s challenging (to live at Hilltop), but I’d rather live with brain-injured people,” LeVan said. “I’ve learned a lot from them by watching. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t drink and drive. I’ve also learned that you shouldn’t do drugs because it really damages your brain.”


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