Brain injury survivor creates art to save Maine farmland

“Drying Kelp for Animal Feed,” a photograph at Southpaw Farm by Hugh Chatfield.
Photo courtesy of Hugh Chatfield
“Drying Kelp for Animal Feed,” a photograph at Southpaw Farm by Hugh Chatfield.
Posted April 08, 2011, at 12:13 p.m.
Hugh Chatfield, 51, of Manhattan survived a severe brain injury in 1987 and, after more than a decade of rehab, went on to become a photographer and inspirational comedian. His family resides in Rockport.
Photo courtesy of Hugh Chatfield
Hugh Chatfield, 51, of Manhattan survived a severe brain injury in 1987 and, after more than a decade of rehab, went on to become a photographer and inspirational comedian. His family resides in Rockport.
“Onion man,” a photograph of Knox farmer Peter Curra by Hugh Chatfield.
Photo courtesy of Hugh Chatfield
“Onion man,” a photograph of Knox farmer Peter Curra by Hugh Chatfield.
“Cow Calf,” a photograph at Gold Top Farm by Hugh Chatfield.
Photo courtesy of Hugh Chatfield
“Cow Calf,” a photograph at Gold Top Farm by Hugh Chatfield.

Sometimes what makes a photo intriguing isn’t the subject being photographed or the lighting or composition; sometimes it’s the person behind the lens and how he came to be at that place with a camera in his hand.

The photos in the exhibit “Growing Farms” at the Maine Farmland Trust Gallery in Belfast through May 2 serve two purposes: to show the beautiful variety of farmland in Waldo County; and to inspire people recovering from brain injuries — or any person trying to accomplish their goals in the face of adversity — because the artist behind the lens, Hugh Chatfield, has a message to share.

To better understand the meaning of Chatfield’s photography, it’s best go back to the terrible moment that altered his life.

Chatfield was 25 years old when he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles Theater Department. Two years later, on June 29, 1987, he was speeding in his Volkswagen Rabbit from his Santa Monica Beach apartment to Hollywood, desperate to get to an audition, when he tried to run a red light. A truck stopped abruptly in front of him. He rear-ended the truck, totaled his car and sustained a severe brain injury that put him into a coma.

Paramedics took Chatfield to the UCLA Medical Center, where the trauma unit saved his life. Two weeks later, he was flown to Penobscot Bay Medical Center, where his family from Rockport could visit him. Some comatose patients respond to familiar voices, and Chatfield’s eyes first opened there, 28 days after the accident.

“If anyone had told me what was going to happen, I would have said, ‘Shut up, no way,’” said Chatfield, now 51. “People think they’re invulnerable.”

He had to learn how to walk, eat and talk again.

“You learn by making mistakes,” he said.

In 1989, he was admitted into residential rehabilitation at Goodwill of Maine’s Bayside Neuro Rehabilitation in Portland, where he first met Dr. Richard Doiron, neuropsychologist, a man who would work with him for the next 10 years.

“[The extent you recover from a brain injury] depends on the person, it depends on where the injury occurred and what kind of brain power you have,” said Doiron, “and [Chatfield] obviously had a high level of brain power.”

In 1993, Chatfield moved into his own apartment and began taking classes at the University of Southern Maine. In the mid-1990s, he published articles in the Maine Sunday Telegram and the Maine Times, and published photos in Portland Magazine. He read a self-written essay on Maine Public Radio in 1996, which later won an Award of Journalistic Excellence from Public Radio News Directors Inc.

Maine’s popular comedian Bob Marley began coaching Chatfield in the late 1990s as a part of Chatfield’s outpatient rehab program at Bayside. Marley drove Chatfield to schools throughout Maine to talk to students about the risks of reckless driving and the importance of wearing a helmet. Once again, Chatfield was a performer.

“He’s a very talented, very creative person. What the accident did, of course, was it caused him to have to go back in time and get re-established in terms of his cognitive abilities and in terms of his ability to regulate his brain,” said Doiron.

Chatfield’s brain injuries included injuries to the frontal lobes, generalized swelling and bleeding in the cortex. These injuries affected the control centers of his brain, hindering his ability to focus, inhibit responses, switch gears in conversation and keep his emotions in check — aspects of living that he continues to work on. The posterior of his brain, the area that controls conceptual thinking, perception and taking in information, was better protected during the accident.

He left Portland in 2006 to travel to Lebanon and then to France to study photojournalism. He then moved to Manhattan, where he now resides, and he returns to Maine two or three times a year to visit his family’s home on a peninsula that juts into Penobscot Bay in Rockport.

In New York, he finds it easier to pursue a career in photography and performance. Last year, Marley and Portland comedian George Hamm joined Chatfield at New York’s Gotham Comedy Club, where he was working with the Wounded Warrior Project to produce a show for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have brain injuries.

Traumatic brain injuries have been called the “signature injury” of American troops returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon officials estimated in 2009 that up to 360,000 of these veterans have suffered brain injuries.

“It’s not common for someone to have such a major brain injury — that would leave them in a coma for that long a period of time and leave them that physically and cognitively incapacitated — to be able to come back as far as he has; not just be getting along, but to actually be doing some really interesting artistic and creative things,” said Doiron.

Now that Chatfield has come so far in his recovery, he wants to help brain injury survivors build self-esteem and optimism about life.

“You don’t deserve to just sit like a bump on a log,” said Chatfield. “You can make a useful contribution to the world. There are many ways you can do that, but you can’t give up hope.

Last year, he showed his photography in two Manhattan shows based on his trip to Lebanon and the six months he had spent in Beirut.

“Photography is a link to my lifelong love of images, an ability that predates my injury,” he said. “It’s a link to the creative world I had before my injury.”

Through his photos of Maine farms, Chatfield hopes to support Maine Farmland Trust’s new Farm Viability program and their campaign to protect 100,000 acres of Maine farmland, announced publicly in January 2011.

“We’re looking at a piece of beautiful land,” Chatfield said. “Why is it so important? As my cousin Charlie Dodge says, ‘They’re not making any more of it.’ When it’s gone, it’s gone. Maine is worth preserving.”

The Farm Viability Program is designed to help farmers succeed by providing support through business planning and by creating new pieces of community infrastructure. Though organizers are targeting the Unity area, they plan to expand the program to other regions of the state.

“We’ve found art to be a great way to catch the attention of a wide audience and display the diversity of the farms we have in this region,” said Mike Gold, project coordinator for the Farm Viability Program.

In September, Gold brought Chatfield to Curra Family Farm in Knox, Southpaw Farm in Unity, Gold Top Farm in Knox, Johnny Selected Seeds Farm in Albion and to resident farmers at the MOFGA farm in Unity. Chatfield took about 500 photos in one day, focusing mostly on farmers at work and livestock, but also capturing the beauty of the land.

“There’s so much bad news in the world — to be able to see all these farms and people in peace in Unity, Maine, was very fulfilling for me,” Chatfield said.

The Maine Farmland Trust Gallery is located at 97 Main St. in Belfast and is open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. For information about the exhibit, call Anna Abaldo at 338-6575 or visit www.mainefarmlandtrust.org. To see some of Chatfield’s photography, visit hughchatfield.com. Watch Chatfield’s inspirational comedy skit for veterans at www.youtube.com/watch?v=znQIsCbcMk4/.

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