It’s the opening night at a Louisville gallery of Art From The Other Side, a solo show of my mixed-media sculptures. My pre-show ritual was to arrive early at the gallery to spend some time alone with the art. As I headed toward the gallery, a young woman, an artist with a studio space in the same building, approached me. She reached into her pocket, “I checked out your show earlier today,” she said and held out her hand.
“I want you to have this.” She pressed a small key into my hand, gave me a hug, and continued on her way.
I took a deep breath and thought about the strange path that led me to encounters like this one. It was a journey that took me from my life as an international development worker to a new life as an artist–with an unexpected trip to the other side tucked in between. And I can say with certainty that it is definitely not the recommended route to becoming an artist.
Years before, when I was working in Mexico, I contracted three different types of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne brain infection. Within a week, I ended up at a CDC affiliated hospital in Atlanta with infectious disease specialists struggling to save my life. That evening, I had a near-death experience. I returned to this world–just not as the Dan Rhema who had entered the hospital. The damage the fever inflicted on my brain left me with huge gaps in my long-term memory and for many years, no short-term memory. On that day, my identity, the Dan Rhema that I was born as, was locked away forever. But, at that very same moment, a creative force was unlocked in me that would guide me to a new path, to a new life.
Soon after my near-death experience, nightly, metaphysical dreams led to a creative compulsion taking over my waking hours. Not having been an artist before the fever, I thought I was going crazy. It took me a long time to comprehend that I hadn’t returned from the other side as an artist. I had returned as the art. And I realized that my story and the art spun a narrative–that out of trauma can come creativity and through creativity healing can begin.
To represent the duality of that moment in time when my world changed, I “sign” each of my sculptures and paintings by affixing a key somewhere on the completed piece.
I gazed down into the palm of my hand and understood that my new life, as this new Dan Rhema, could be elegantly summed up in the tiny key that I held.
And now, opening night of my healing art show, described, by some, as group-art therapy and by others, as altar calls. The shows can be very intense evenings of laughter, tears, and personal stories that have never been shared before. My art and my story have now become the key to enable others to unlock the doors of their own trauma and to open their lives to healing.
And for that, I am grateful.