Triumph of a martyr

Elisa Terranova chronicles her physical struggles through art

“Madonna of the Corn” by Elisa Terranova.

“Madonna of the Corn” by Elisa Terranova.

Photo By David Robert

It’s hard to know where to begin.

Standing in front of Elisa Terranova’s massive narrative paintings, I find no definitive hero and villain, no immediately evident right and wrong, no clear narrative. Often, the cast of characters is so varied, so obscure, so allegorical, it would take an encyclopedia of religious iconography and a vivid imagination to even begin to unpack the painting’s meaning.

The search for meaning in Terranova’s work, now on display at the Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery in Diary of a Martyr, does have a clear starting point, though. It must always begin with her one reoccurring figure, a mestiza woman whom Terranova casts at times as the troubled victim and at other times as the triumphant heroine. This character is often supported by back or neck braces; her skin is frequently crisscrossed by stitches; her internal organs are sometimes painted so as to appear outside her skin. Yet she remains, in each work, intensely beautiful.

This is Elisa Terranova herself—the martyr.

In 1980, Terranova was involved in a near-fatal car crash. Through physical therapy, she was able to regain some use of her arms—about 80 percent—but her legs and hands have been completely paralyzed ever since. In the years following her accident, Terranova began taking art classes and eventually received a master of fine arts at Arizona State University. Wearing a hand brace that pinches her fingers together, Terranova is able to hold a paintbrush; she then uses her arm muscles to direct her hands across the canvas.

“I want people to know what I’ve gone through, [not to feel sorry for me], but to say, ‘Look what this person has accomplished,’ “ Terranova says. “The paintings are my accomplishment.”

And they truly are a magnificent accomplishment. A few works are pure portraiture, but most are densely populated with rich, allegorical figures. “All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men,” for instance, is a “double self-portrait” that portrays a pre- and post-accident Terranova.

This is not simply a depiction of the artist, however. It’s a dramatic portrayal of events surrounding her accident and operation. One of the most notable figures is (presumably) her operating surgeon, a naked man with a surgeon’s cap and mask. His hands are bound behind his back, yet he clasps a weapon—a surgical knife. Another figure seems to symbolize death; he’s dressed in a black cape and holding a rose that drips with blood.

Many of Terranova’s works are strongly influenced by early Mexican art, an art Terranova calls “extremely melodramatic” and free of “polite Jesus figures.” She draws on a variety of religious and cultural traditions, but says that Catholic imagery is her primary inspiration. “Madonna of the Corn” and “Madonna of the Sunflowers” both draw upon, yet subvert this Catholic symbolism. “In Madonna of the Corn,” Terranova’s arms are crossed in what she calls the French “up yours” gesture.

“Corn symbolizes fertility,” Terranova says. “[I’m saying] ‘up yours’ to the Catholic notion that a woman’s … destiny is to conceive and bear children.”

Terranova says that by drawing upon iconography and allegory, she is able to dramatize her own struggle, to “vicariously project attitudes and feelings” that her body can no longer express and to glorify her “role as a martyr.”

“I’m fascinated by the idea of icons,” Terranova says. “I love physical narratives. I love mythological narratives. I take bits and pieces of them. I take all these influences and distill them down to my own personal poetry.”

Once Terranova’s roles as artist, victim, martyr and irreverent Madonna come into focus, a wonderful story begins to unfold. We see war, marriage, love and death through the lens of Terranova’s fascinating visual diary. And the story becomes even more extraordinary when you remember that its author has neither feeling nor movement in her hands.

“But talent lies in the brain," Terranova explains. "Not in the hand."