Ann Vincenti-Michelman challenges viewers to enter into the experience of attempting to make sense of chaos—to literally walk alongside images chronicling ten years of a family’s struggle to care for a child whose neurological disorder plunges her into a downward spiral of isolation and unpredictability. Precise assemblages of fragments of family treasures, found objects, cultural touchstones, and images reworked from the artist’s previous pieces are layered and affixed to muslin-wrapped wood blocks to create small images, just 3.5” by 4.75”—the artist’s intricate visual journal of nearly every day of the decade that followed her daughter’s diagnosis. The 3,650 collages, presented without explanation in a 100-foot-long installation, immerse viewers in the enormity of that experience, and of the evolution of the artist’s relationship with her daughter. Each tiny assemblage is a unique work, the image of a thought at a moment in a particular day. Meticulous recombinations of disparate shards of a family’s shattered life, each dated “diary entry” searches for meaning in a present moment, while all the while, in the viewer’s peripheral vision, other unfathomable days and images lie behind, and more ahead.
Vincenti-Michelman began creating one small collage a day in 1998 after her daughter was diagnosed with Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, which is often associated with autism. Children with the disorder appear typical in infancy, but then regress; they lose their ability to speak or understand language, and descend into a maelstrom of disruptive behavior. The first image the viewer encounters in Collage Journey is one the artist sketched on the back of a medical flyer while waiting for her daughter’s diagnosis at a hospital in Boston. The next, the very first collage in this piece, is the artist’s attempt on the following day to show how biology had gone awry.
The thousands of items, ideas and symbols in Collage Journey invite a multitude of interpretations, just as the symptoms and impairments of autism and other neurological disorders do. Thirty gridded panels of collages bring order to chaos. Placement of the panels side by side in a 100-foot array creates an organic line of time and experience along which the viewer must move, as the artist moved through real time in the tumultuous years over which this work was created. Viewed from a distance the stabilized design appears as a colorful mosaic. More intimate engagement with the piece is needed to perceive the themes the panels bear, like pages of a visual book. Some early panels hold heartbreaking imagery of family traditions that will never be carried on to the next generation, pieced together from tiny craft objects, toys, coins, torn bits of photographs and maps and dictionaries and children’s books: objects that convey abstractions inaccessible to a child with a language handicap. Each later panel reflects a theme common to children and families experiencing similar struggles, including the loss of playful imagination and domestic security. Vincenti-Michelman portrays our universal humanity through an array of scattered letters, miniatures, Shakespeare, clocks.
Autism: A Visual Journey draws the viewer into a rich pictorial conversation, one whose weight is all the more profound because the artist’s daughter may never be able to understand it.