Artist Ray Colleran won’t soon forget his 34th birthday. While celebrating with friends, he endured a grand mal seizure that lasted five minutes. The seizure—which followed two previous neck and spinal cord injuries sustained in auto accidents—changed his life, including his personality:
“I became agoraphobic,” he says. “I couldn’t take the subway. I couldn’t remember if I ate. I started watching TV all the time. I stopped playing cards with my friends.”
Not long after the seizure, his marriage broke up, and the gallery that represented him dropped him. “I guess I was not the man I used to be,” he says. “I can’t believe I thought nothing had changed, but everybody else knew.”
Colleran, a self-taught painter from Seattle now living in Oreland, Pa., has been diagnosed with both mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he credits the medical experts at MossRehab, where he also received the physical, speech and occupational therapy and counseling that, he says, “has totally turned my life around.” Still, he can’t sit or stand for long periods of time. He is in pain most of the time and can’t lift anything over 10 pounds, so he no longer works on the massive canvases—landscapes up to six- by 10-feet—for which he was known. But the one constant in his life remains—his art.
He began painting at 18 to express himself, using a birthday gift of paints given to him by a girlfriend in art school. He graduated from Seattle University at age 20 with a major in philosophy, preparatory to what he had thought would be a transition to law school. Instead, he began painting after university, encouraged by his father, who advised him to follow his dream. By 27, he had become a full-time artist.
It was only natural that Colleran turned to his craft when it seemed that everything else was lost to him. Colleran had kept a journal since his early teens, and when the altered circumstances of his life left him almost a stranger to himself, he began journaling in a different way.
A bookseller friend gave him an old self-published book about General Dynamics, the international aerospace and defense company. “The book wasn’t worth anything so I tore it apart very carefully,” he explains, pulling out a box of deconstructed pages from a shelf in his studio. The book is filled with pictures of aircraft through history, submarines, and weaponry. “I took a page a day and I would write a little bit and then draw on it. It was my journal entry for the day.”
Gifted with amazing hearing, seeing, spatial relations and mechanical reasoning, Colleran had grown up fascinated by planes and PT boats, and at one point hoped to become a pilot. He also had a cousin who flew in the reserves. But his father, who had served in the Navy, offered a different perspective. He advised him, “Watch the movie ‘The Killing Fields,’ and afterward we can talk about personal responsibility and orders that can’t be ignored.” After that, Colleran says, “I realized it wasn’t my path, and we both didn’t like to be told what to do and preferred being free thinkers.”
Colleran’s work reflects both the loathing of what he calls “this stage of our evolution—the history of wars,” and his constant companion, trauma and pain, though tempered with his color choices—often sea blue, magenta, and pink, like a sunset over the ocean.
“Being an artist,” he says, “has been my saving grace. I shudder to think where I’d be without the ability to express myself.”
And it is what has kept him going. “The whole time,” he says, with a little smile. “It was the only thing—yeah.”
You can see several of his painted journal entries as part of MossRehab’s “All About Art” Show at MossRehab’s Elkins Park, Pa., campus, 60 Township Line Road. The juried exposition and sale, which runs through November 4, is open to professional artists with physical, cognitive, visual and hearing disabilities.