After a car accident left her with a traumatic brain injury, Larissa MacFarlane started to see the world differently.
Things like buildings, colours and flowers had taken on an unfamiliar shape. Her interests had shifted too.
She had been an avid reader, but had to relearn how to read. She’d loved music, but suddenly found music difficult to comprehend.
Instead, she discovered an interest in art.
“Before my brain injury I actually had no interest in visual art at all. I wagged art at school. I hated art,” she says.
“It’s like my brain took out the music bit and put in this visual art bit.”
MacFarlane says it was like being reborn. She has memories of her life before, but now has a different personality, identity, thoughts, feelings and abilities.
Managing her brain injury through handstands
MacFarlane was only able to start making art after securing housing, which took about seven years, and her initial work was concerned with her new home in Melbourne’s west.
While art is her main occupation, she considers managing her brain injury as another part-time job — as she deals with her fatigue and chronic pain through visits to the pool and other daily rituals.
Since 2004, one of the most important rituals has been doing handstands.
Inspired by a footballer’s post-goal handstand, she decided to set herself the aim of doing a handstand. It became a beacon of joy to reach for.
“I really thought this was going to help me, it was going to cure me of my brain injury,” she says.
MacFarlane lacked both strength and co-ordination. But with some help from a friend and the monkey bars at the park, she eventually got there.
“It took me months … I wrote in my journal: ‘I will do a handstand, I will do a handstand,’ every day for four months,” she says.
Success came on her 35th birthday, about 13 years ago — and almost every day since then she’s done a handstand.
Little wins all the time
For years she did her handstands in secret, in stairwells and alleyways and toilets.
While she walks and stands with the help of a walking stick, doing a handstand relieves her of the pain in her feet and legs.
“I’m actually using them [the handstands] to manage pain and … distress and I’m using them to give myself grounding,” she says.
MacFarlane lives with trauma, but by doing handstands she faces down terror every day.
“I’m just challenging the sort of fear I live with in my life on a daily basis. I get to challenge it and I get to have little wins all the time,” she says.
“I also want to challenge that stereotype of disability that says that you can’t do anything. People with disabilities have amazing skills and one of my amazing skills is doing handstands.”
Sharing her handstands with the world
What started as a private ritual later became a source of artistic exploration.
First, she began documenting the places around Melbourne she had done handstands — creating a kind of map of all the places she could do them in.
McFarlane says she eventually realised she’d been hiding her handstands, out of embarrassment that she still had to manage her brain injury.
“There is so much shame and stigma around disability,” she says.
“People with disabilities internalise that shame, so we’re ashamed of who we are. I extended that to this amazing thing called handstands — I was hiding them.”
In order to move forward, McFarlane says, she needed to be proud of what she did.
So she began taking photos of herself doing handstands, then blowing them up in black and white, and pasting them on street walls “to leave a mark — this is where I did a handstand and this is where I’ll be back”.
Education, access, value, and portrayal
MacFarlane wants to untangle the challenges facing artists with disabilities, including the widespread devaluation of their work, and the accessibility of educational institutions.
While studying visual arts at TAFE, she was encouraged to remove any mention of her brain injury in her artist statement, and told that including her disability would make her work less valued.
“I look back [at that] with horror, but I carried that with me for so long, because I really thought I needed to not refer to my brain injury,” she says.
“But it didn’t make sense, because I am only an artist because of my brain injury. I mean, that’s like the gift of [my] brain injury.”
MacFarlane sees people with disabilities too often portrayed as either an inspiration or as a tragedy, but her work asks the viewer to see beyond these two stereotypes.
Her artwork, most of which involves handstands, is now on display at the Footscray Community Arts Centre.