Cover Story: Out of the Wreckage

Adam Maloney works hard to reconnect with his art following a devastating car accident

Jul 2, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

The color comes naturally as Adam works on another self portrait with his Crayola 100 pack..

He stares at my face for 30 full seconds, meticulously drops the crayon to the paper, glances up again and slowly begins outlining my head. I'm turning splotchy red and growing uncomfortably warm while attempting to face forward, chin tilted up and to the left, eyes fixed on the upper left corner of his kitchen.

"Hmmmmm," he says every couple of minutes, sipping from a Mt. Dew as if it's piping hot coffee.

I'm at Adam Maloney's house, where the 19-year-old artist is sketching my portrait. I try not to be bothered by his staring, and I try not to count in my head the numerous times he's compared painting and drawing to sex.

"Something you might want to write down is that to me creating, drawing, painting and installation is the next best thing to making love," Adam says.

It's my turn to say, "Hmmmmm," while also trying not to notice his trembling right hand as it holds the crayon or his left arm constricted and useless.

I'd be uneasy if I didn't know Adam Maloney, if I didn't know that — contrary to the girl-crazed, misunderstood youth he appears to be — there's a seriously talented and focused young man just below the surface. Someone concerned more with his art than the wheelchair he's confined to or his partial paralysis.

He doesn't really talk about the car accident 10 months before that turned his life and his dreams upside down — maybe because he sees no use dwelling on it or it's too painful to relive, but most likely because he doesn't remember.

He never will.

A wreck
I probably would never have met Adam if it weren't for the Warsaw Project Space (WPS) press release last August, which I glanced over while compiling the CityBeat calendar listings. The release mentioned something about a special one-man show — by an Art Academy student who survived a terrible wreck in January 2002 — that consisted of 14 paintings, including two self-portraits made since the accident.

After briefly talking with WPS founding director Keith Benjamin, who is also Adam's core instructor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, I phone Adam to discuss mentioning his show in a blurb in CityBeat's To Do picks. A couple of days later, I decide to go see the work.

On the closing day for Adam's debut show at the small West side gallery, a few young people linger in the space. I stop in front of "Jupiter and Io," a 4-by-4-foot abstract figure of Jupiter painted in blazing red and Io transposed in pastels on top a wash of grass-green acrylic.

A couple more student-types arrive, and then Adam is wheeled in by his uncle. As the five or six patrons continue to skim the work, Adam sits in his wheelchair touching up one piece, drawing more designs in pastel and adding what appear to be Cheerios. He seems lost as I introduce myself, appearing to have no recollection of our phone conversation a week prior, when we talked for about 20 minutes or so, and Adam finally asked, "Did Keith mention I was in a car accident?"

That would be Jan. 6, 2002, a snowy night. Adam's mother and stepfather, Sue and David Lowe, and their 7-year-old daughter Nina had spent the evening at their Milford home while Adam worked his shift at the local movie multiplex during winter break from the Art Academy.

When Adam didn't get home at his usual time, Sue says she got that funny feeling that mothers do. She was worried because he'd just gotten his driver's license four days earlier.

David left to look for Adam and, just two blocks from home, saw flashing lights, some firemen and Adam's navy blue 1986 Pontiac Grand Am jammed into a telephone poll in a residential lawn.

There were no witnesses, and no one knows exactly how long the car had been there. A volunteer fireman just happened to pass and thought he saw something. All the firemen could tell David was that the car had slid off the icy road into the telephone poll and paramedics had taken the driver — who they thought was the passenger because of where they found him in the car — to University Hospital.

David was lucky to come upon the site. Since the paramedics found no identification on the accident victim — Adam's wallet later turned up in the passenger seat — his mother hadn't and wouldn't have gotten a phone call.

Sue wondered during the long ride to University Hospital why Adam hadn't been taken to Bethesda in the nearby Eastgate area. It wouldn't occur to her until later that he'd been admitted to UC because of his brain injury and the necessity for intensive care. The only news she and David heard on their arrival was that Adam broke his femur and a doctor put a metal rod in it.

In fact, Adam was in a coma, and he remained unconscious for 10 days. A CAT scan and an MRI confirmed he had no internal injuries or hemorrhaging, but doctors found that he'd suffered a brain shear, which would impair his cognition, vision and short- and long-term memory and paralyze his left arm, hand, leg and foot.

During the 10-day coma, Adam was kept on a ventilator and given blood, and family could see him only for 45 minutes at a time. His family, friends and Art Academy professors took turns by his side, hanging up photos, telling bad jokes and reading to him.

The days were long, especially for Adam's immediate family, who switched off keeping watch over him. Eventually, the fog lifted.

Waking life
"When Adam woke up, it was like the one time no one was there, except for his nurse," Sue says. "She called me at home and told me she thought I'd better come up there, that Adam was awake."

When Sue arrived, Adam was sitting up on his hospital bed, staring out the window. She called David and the rest of the family, but only after Adam proved his consciousness in a few "If you can see your mom, raise your right thumb" tests given by his nurse.

He wasn't completely attentive, though. He just stared straight ahead.

The next 13 days were pretty much the same for Adam's family as when he was in the coma, save their relief of his awakening and that Nina was finally allowed to see him. That's when they'd start focusing on the word that would consume the entire next year: recovery.

But recovery was very far away. Adam's short-term memory didn't immediately resurface, so what he did and didn't know was still murky. When his grandfather brought along his new wife to the hospital for a visit, Adam got angry and asked them to leave; he forgot his mother's parents were divorced.

Adam was released from University Hospital on Jan. 30, 2002, and admitted to Drake Rehabilitation Center's long-term care facility in Hartwell. Ten days later, he celebrated his 19th birthday.

Little by little his memory came back, and before long his mental condition was much less of a concern than the paralyzed and "tonal" (constricted) left side of his body. His biggest worry wasn't whether he'd walk again but with his artwork at home.

"I was worried that had I died in the car accident, my parents would throw away my paintings," Adam says when recounting that time.

It's now October 2002, the first of many meetings at his home, and all Adam can do is talk about painting. He misses it, hasn't done it in nine months, because it's just as much a physical activity as it is creative.

He likes to work to the sounds of his favorites — Charlie Parker, Beastie Boys — on canvases up to 6 feet in height, and he prefers standing. Before his accident, he'd usually prime the canvases with a slopping of paint thrown with a brush and then start working layer upon layer.

He explains over and over again how his artwork was and remains to be the main element in his recovery, but no explanation is necessary. The proof lies in a stack of three or four sketchbooks on his kitchen table he went through in about two months. He needs a new one today.

Adam's pain is obvious. Sue interrupts once to change a morphine pain patch and later for some mother-son bickering. He wears a piece of tape in the inner corners of his thick, dark specs to help correct his "left eye neglect," a condition caused by the brain injury that won't allow the left eye to follow along with the right. Mt. Dew is his other elixir.

His bedroom is a new coat of "frog green," a project Sue and others took on before Adam's arrival home from Drake — one of the jobs she's taken on to revamp their cozy one-story house. The room used to be Adam's studio/bedroom, where he was free to splatter paint at his leisure.

Although the new paint job was against Adam's wishes, he got to pick the color, and it suits him fine. Up close, his tile floor is still dotted with tiny speckles even after the carpet was pulled up — just the way he likes it.

When he's able to paint again, Sue says he'll have to paint outside, where it won't matter where the paint splatters.

Using art as therapy
Most of Adam's paintings look contemporarily and familiar — bold colors, Islamic patterns, pop culture designs and symbols. One gets a déjà vu sense viewing his works, which is a direct result of his artistic influences and heroes: African art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hockney, Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Adam imitates his heroes' styles to improve his craft. His studies on the human figure, mythology, politics and the Middle East have shaped his pieces into satirical and beautiful tributes — especially his "Odalisques," reclining nudes that Ingres made his signature.

But Adam doesn't ape an Ingres piece — he substitutes girlfriends and models for his subjects, something he started in his Milford High School art classes under the tutelage of Jack McCullough, his junior-year art instructor. McCullough says his drive was obvious from the get-go.

"He's a student who knew early that he wanted to be an artist," McCullough says. "He was totally committed, which is pretty rare with high school students."

Adam formed a close friendship with and respect for McCullough in school. During Adam's senior year, after McCullough left Milford to work in admissions at the Art Academy, he became Adam's connection at his future college.

Adam hadn't set out to attend the Art Academy, though. He was accepted to the Art Institute of Chicago on the spot he says, at one of the senior "spotlight" days at UC, when high school students show off their portfolios to prospective colleges.

But insufficient funds at home and a lack of significant financial aid made it impossible for him to enroll at the Art Institute. He's still receiving correspondence from Chicago, and he's been encouraged to look into their graduate studies programs.

The Art Academy agreed with Adam, and McCullough and Benjamin soon became his mentors while Adam became an active student. One exhibit he participated in during the fall semester — with an installation of cowboy and Indian figurines, the cowboys shooting the Indians, and his "Father Mike" painting, primarily in greens, infused with text from the Koran — was a group show in response to Sept. 11, which allowed Adam to weave political interests into his artwork.

Always politically active — a member of the national Green Party and its Ohio and Southwest chapters — Adam became involved in the Campus Greens at the Art Academy. But all activity stopped after the accident, except for his drawing, which would become his own sort of therapy while at Drake. He worked primarily on self-portraits, including text about his "crippled libido" — a way for him to draw his way through to cope.

Benjamin recalls that kind of dedication in class.

"In comparative terms to the rest of the group, he did his own research," Benjamin says. "He came to class with a lot of his own interests. Very intelligent in a way. One of the problems with having a student like him is that you wonder if he's thinking about his own thing (and not the curriculum), if he's resisting. But he could explain what he was doing. He was willing to sit down and have conversations about things, which is different than what we're used to here."

His independence stems from his high school experience. According to former teacher Dan Miller, Adam had a lot of freedom at Milford High. He could often be found visiting Miller, hanging out or drawing. On the day of his accident, he'd been doing just that.

All of his teachers seem to have kept in touch with Adam during his recovery. McCullough was a regular hospital visitor, and Benjamin organized the one-man show at WPS when Adam was still early in his recovery.

Miller has also kept in touch, sitting to have his portrait made and buying it. Looking at some of his recent work of the past year, Miller says he can see how Adam's work is helping him recover.

"He has interesting juxtapositions (in his drawings) with the female form and his own hand (which is drawn overlapping various parts on the figure)," Miller says. "He's working through his (physical) problems with his art."

The long road back
Talking with Sue on the phone in January 2003, I note Adam's rather loud attempts to cut in on the conversation, not an uncommon occurrence.

"Tell her that I'm quitting Buddhism," he shouts, before telling her to tell me he's been researching it and is really just giving it some thought.

Adam is constantly reinventing himself, which sounds suspiciously like normal teenage behavior — the quest to be "original." For personal reasons, after his accident Adam became a vegetarian and a Theravada Buddhist. He says he doesn't meditate but basically practices good karma.

He probably won't quit practicing Buddhism. Then again, maybe he will. And so it goes with Adam — just when you think you have him pegged, you hear another story.

"Adam's friends were over the other day and I could hear them talking, and I wasn't really paying attention," Sue says. "But then I hear Adam tell them he wants to change his name to Hank E. Panky, just so that when he gets married someday the minister will have to present his wife and him as Mr. and Mrs. Hank E. Panky."

McCullough has also seen this side of Adam.

"He seems quiet, but when the mood strikes him he can be very theatrical, like go into different characters," McCullough says, laughing. "Sometimes even the clothes he wears — you can tell he's in some character. He has a great sense of humor."

One afternoon we get on the subject of new cars, specifically my need for one. Sue teases me, saying, "There's nothing like a new car."

Adam grins and adds, "Or a new kidney!"

When he was first admitted to Drake, Adam's biggest problem was the tightness in his upper and lower left extremities. Dr. Benjamin Nguyen, his neural rehabilitator, says Adam had severe spasticity in his muscles — his brain couldn't tell his muscles to relax, which is why he couldn't move his left arm or leg.

For treatment Dr. Nguyen inserted a pump into Adam's stomach that ran baclofen, which reduces muscle spasticity, through a catheter into his spinal chord. Adam also got a little botox therapy to help with pain and to relax his muscles. He's had numerous injections in his left leg and arm, which has helped significantly with getting his heel to touch the ground when he walks. His arm has also been cast several times to help increase its range of motion.

Connie Buda and Jennifer Price treated Adam with occupational and physical therapy, respectively. Therapy was especially rough in the beginning, they say, because Adam's physical condition was so severe.

"When Adam started (therapy), he had an incredible amount of anxiety and fear and pain issues," Buda says. "It was roadblock after roadblock in the beginning."

He needed complete help in all areas — clothing himself, fixing food, concentration, problem-solving and getting in and out of bed and wheelchair. Because Adam was so motivated to get back to school, Sue says, his therapists even made Drake his college — they assigned him to walk from "classroom" to "classroom" as exercise.

Just a little over a year in therapy, Adam now walks with a walker and is mainly independent at home.

Asked about his therapy sessions last fall when he was still under treatment, Adam answers quickly, "There is no best part." Then he retracts it a bit.

"I guess when I meet goals, walk up stairs," he says. "It scares me to try new exercises. They (therapists) always tell me I can do it, and I don't think I can, but then I do. Like climbing the stairs. That's a good feeling when I do something they tell me I can do."

At first while at Drake, Adam's attitude was sub par. He fell into a deep depression, as paralyzed brain-injury victims — especially teenagers — are wont to do. He was also frustrated when some staffers downplayed his artistic drive.

"The one thing that was depressing about (staying at) Drake was these two women on the weekends," he says. "They would try to make me stop drawing to smile. They'd say, 'Stop coloring and smile. You can color later, this is more important.' I would tell them that I'm an artist and that I feel that I have to be prolific. But they would just giggle and use babytalk. They thought my drawing was just senseless coloring."

Asked if art was integrated into Adam's therapy, Buda says it wasn't but knows his creativity helped motivate him to recover. She says they didn't include art because he was already working artistically 99 percent of the time — drawing images of his new "equipment," wheelchairs, casts, his therapists' portraits, incorporating words and phrases routinely heard. When therapists try to re-develop a hobby with a patient, she says, it's a hobby the patient enjoys but has lost the ability for.

Adam is reluctant to discuss what he remembers about his hospitalization. Sue says he didn't want to accept the accident for a while.

It's understandable, because mentally he's the same guy, according to his mother. That he's the same guy with the same talent and career goals, though, is remarkable.

Sue can't explain his recovery. She was told later that Adam's doctors at University Hospital didn't expect him to wake up. When he did, the Lowes were warned that he'd have minimal brain functioning and probably wouldn't walk again.

Adam admits now that he didn't think he'd ever walk.

'I don't have to think about color'
At the time of Adam's discharge from Drake in May 2002, his psychiatrist, doctor and therapists felt he was ready to go back to school — his main goal. He was encouraged by his teachers to return.

But he couldn't enroll again at the Art Academy, as it's not handicap-accessible. If he can wait a few years until the academy moves into its new space on 12th Street in Over-the-Rhine, the school will be able to accommodate his needs.

Art Academy President Gregory Smith says that's part of the reason for the move. There's a wheelchair ramp at the school's Eden Park building but none at the historic Mount Adams facility, where all of Adam's classes were. And no elevators. Smith says that with being such a small school, the Art Academy administration prides itself on working closely with the students. But this situation is special.

"We've had other students with disabilities, two other students," Smith says. "One had difficulty with the stairs. A handicapped woman plugged through it, but it was a real challenge. What we want to do is make a handicap-accessible facility."

Kathy Weimer, the school's disabilities coordinator, suggested some possibilities to Sue — community education classes Adam wasn't interested in. But Smith says Adam can take courses elsewhere in the area and transfer the credits to the Art Academy when he re-enrolls.

Sue has been in contact with the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission (ORSC) to figure out other alternatives for Adam and even some funding. Wright State, University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University are possibilities.

Adam's recent evaluation with the ORSC — a standard aptitude test much like the ACT or SAT — had promising results. He's going back to school, maybe even as early as the fall. Where is still the question, and he'll get a scooter to buzz through campus.

At our last meeting in early May, Adam walks into the living room with his walker sporting tape-less glasses, like he'd been doing it all of his life. He works intensely on drawing another self-portrait, his medium the Crayola 100-pack — a birthday present. He's still not up to painting.

"I don't have to think about color," he says. "It just comes to me."

I smile when I realize how significant it is that he doesn't have to think about something.

Last week he announced that he's finished three paintings since May — a nude, based on memory, of his ex-girlfriend; a portrait of a friend and fellow Art Academy student; and a non-objective. He painted outside so he wouldn't upset his mother, using acrylic, oil pastel and newspaper "funny pages" for texture and color.

His palette is slowly filling up again. ©