After suffering a Traumatic Brain Injury in 1998, Spanky Bentz thought making art would be just another thing he’d have to give up.
“I wasn’t sure if I could do it anymore,” he said.
He had to relearn how to walk, talk, even feed himself after being hit by a car head-on while riding a bicycle.
But more recently, he began to challenge himself by creating black-and-white drawings of wildflowers and historical buildings near his home in Thurmont. When a neighbor was tearing down an old barn, Bentz asked if he could have the wood scraps and taught himself to make frames for his artwork from the salvaged wood.
At Catoctin Colorfest, which runs Oct. 9 and 10 in Thurmont, he and other TBI survivors will show their artwork while also sharing their stories about Traumatic Brain Injuries.
Along with Bentz, TBI survivors showing work are Christina Osheim and James Miller, who will be joined by the Brain Injury Association of Maryland and Thurmont’s American Legion. The artists met through the Brain Injury Association of Maryland’s weekly Zoom gatherings for TBI survivors, where they can share their stories and build community.
“Colorfest is really about spreading awareness about Traumatic Brain Injuries,” Bentz said. “It can be a very isolating injury.”
Bryan Thomas Pugh, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Maryland, launched the weekly Zoom meetings in May 2020, wanting to give people an opportunity to meet during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people with TBIs were feeling even more isolated than usual. About 15 to 18 people from across the country meet each week.
The Brain Injury Association partnered with Thurmont American Legion in part because so many veterans experience TBIs.
“Within the vet community, there is this massive stigma that exists around brain injury. There’s the macho culture of ‘rub a little dirt on it and move on,’” Pugh said. “It’s been a joy for me to develop relationships outside of the organization and spread more awareness. … At Colorfest, we want to showcase what you can do if you have a brain injury.”
Osheim, a ceramic artist based in Hyattsville with a studio in Brentwood, suffered from a brain injury in 2003 while in college. While working the grounds crew at school, she was thrown from a Gator vehicle when it hit a pothole, and she sustained a closed head injury, which kept her in the hospital for three weeks. Once released, she wasn’t given any instruction when it came to long-term followups. Her persistent symptoms include short-term memory loss, fatigue and difficulty with organizational skills.
“I can function like a normal person to the outside world, and I tried to be normal for 18 years,” she said. “The injury itself is traumatic, but then trying to live with it can also be traumatic.”
She continued to pursue art after her injury and eventually made it her life path. For her, it allows her to explore things without using words, she said.
More recently, she found the Brain Injury Association of Maryland and began to attend their weekly online meetings and connect with other TBI to connect survivors.
At Colorfest, she will show a recent series of drawings she calls Neuro Maps, often simple, symmetrical shapes that resemble mandalas. She began creating them as a way to improve her memory. She’s found that by drawing while listening to a lecture or podcast, she is better able to retain the information. The visual element helps her more than traditional methods, such as flash cards.
“It becomes almost like a meditation, when listening to things,” she explained.
Also in the works are sterling silver pendants of her geometrical Neuro Map shapes.
“It is through art that we survive,” Osheim said. “Creativity becomes paramount when you’re in trauma.”