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Monroe man sees life from a different perspective

Paintings represent themes of recovery

Ken Kimball and his son, Aidan, pose with the six portraits Kimball painted in the two years after he survived a rupture of blood vessels in his brain. The six portraits are of Aidan (from left), who represented hope and the future; Ken Kimball, whose self-portrait was one of self-acceptance; Jason Tors, who symbolized the importance of creativity; Kim De Lutis, who embodied laughter and its healing powers; his wife, Jill Kimball, who was strength and love throughout it all; and Jae Kim, who helped Kimball focus on the details that helped him adjust to his new life. Khela Kupiec/The Littleton Courier. (click for larger version)
July 27, 2011
MONROE – Lined up along a wall in Ken Kimball's Monroe home, the six black-and-white portraits – each composed of two identical images displaced diagonally – are almost dizzying to study. It takes more than a second to make sense of the shapes to make sense of the whole – the brain has to reconcile with double vision that it can't fix.

But the portraits, which can be seen at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, are not meant to be an abstract statement about life or an artist's attempt at pushing the envelope – they're how Kimball has seen people and objects every day for the past two years.

Kimball's life was changed drastically July 15, 2009, as he was training in Franconia with a friend, John Hennessey of the Littleton Coin Co., for the mountain biking portion of a triathlon.

They had been training all summer, but as he was biking on this day, Kimball, now 41, says he suddenly felt dizzy, got off his bike, then stumbled and fell and went into shock.

"I think the last words out of my mouth were, 'Get me to a hospital,' and then everything just went black," said Kimball.

Hennessey and Kimball didn't always ride together, but Hennessey just happened to check back with Kimball at that time, and he started the chain of events that saved his life.

Hennessey was able to quickly get Kimball out of the woods and into an ambulance, which took him to Littleton Regional Hospital, and the doctors there sent him by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

Hennessey was just one of the many quick thinkers in those first few days who worked together to give Kimball the quality of life that he has today.

Doctors discovered Kimball had an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) – or an abnormal connection between blood vessels – in his brain that had ruptured, and it took two days of eight-hour surgeries to stop the bleeding, he said.

Kimball still suffers from chronic nausea and wears glasses that correct for the double vision, but "it would be a lot worse if they didn't act so quickly, and I'm grateful for that."

After his surgeries were completed, Kimball, who was a Web designer at Garnet Hill in Franconia, was told it would take about nine months before he could get back to work, but he was committed to going back to work in three months.

"I couldn't walk, and I had to relearn how to eat and talk and everything else, but I thought I'd be back to work in three months," said Kimball. "[In] three and a half months, I was able to go back to work for one hour a day."

Garnet Hill, he said, allowed him to go in and accomplish however much he felt he could do on any given day.

"I just really appreciated that," said Kimball. "I really needed to go back to work, and they created that environment for me."

Eventually he was able to work up to six hours a day until he had to leave last December to continue the healing process, he said.

However, it was during that time at Garnet Hill, that Kimball was given the idea that he should paint what he sees with double vision – and later a more strict goal of painting six 18-by-24 inch black-and-white portraits to get a good foundation and idea of what he actually was seeing by the time he was done.

Since his childhood, Kimball had identified himself as an artist and had spent much of his 39 years up until July 15, 2009, following and making a living out of that passion.

Creativity was very important to him, but after all that he had gone through, he was avoiding his art because he didn't want to discover that he could no longer draw or paint.

"It came to a point that just making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was so ridiculously challenging and so much anxiety," Kimball said.

But allowing himself to paint what he sees lessened the worry of not measuring up to his previous self, and he started thinking about certain themes that were important to him as he was going through rehabilitation.

His first painting was of his friend Jason Tors:

"When I painted Jason, I was really thinking of the importance of creativity," said Kimball. "Whether you are an artist or accountant you need to be responsible to create the life you want to have for yourself. So I wanted to paint someone that symbolized that."

That first 18-by-24 inch portrait took four months to complete. For five to ten minutes a day he would paint from a photograph that Tors had taken, but it wasn't always clear to him what he was painting.

"As an artist it was weird because I didn't know what I was seeing at all in these first few paintings," said Kimball, "so its amazing that they look like people.

"When I was painting Jason's portrait, it was just shapes … I knew I was looking at eyes, but it was really just a mass of shape and color. It was hard for me to realize that it was a nose or a mouth."

For the second painting, which took six months, Kimball turned to his wife of 15 years, Jill Kimball, and their son, Aidan, now six, to symbolize the strength and love they gave him.

"When you go through an event like this, it's just amazing how much the family goes through, said Kimball. "It's so taxing.

"I can see why some families just crumble under such pressure, yet my wife and son were so strong."

Another blessing, Kimball said, was the idea of having hope.

"Having a young son in my life was just an anchor toward the future. I had to get better."

So for the third painting, the subject is just Aidan, who represented hope and the future, and that painting only took three months.

For Kimball, the length of time each painting took is indicative of how his brain was healing. Each one started to take less and less time, until the last painting only took five days.

For the fourth painting, he chose to paint Tors' wife, Jae Kim -- her portrait took only three weeks.

Kim was Kimball's supervisor at Garnet Hill, and she held "his hand to become a Web designer again." Both Kim and Tors helped make it obvious to Kimball that he was still going to be a designer and a painter, he said, but Kim's portrait symbolizes her helping Kimball with paying attention to details.

The next step of the recovery process was looking inward.

"I realized that … I should stop trying to be the old Ken," said Kimball. "I should just accept the fact that I need to heal, and I need to focus on these paintings and my family right now and let go of being a Web designer and just become someone new.

"And I discovered that it's not that I'm disabled, I just haven't discovered how I'm abled."

So to symbolize self-acceptance, Kimball's fifth painting was of himself – and it took only two weeks.

Finally, to wrap up the project, he wanted to illustrate the importance of laughter.

"It's such a huge pain control tool, and as much pain as I was in when I went back to work, I had such good friends that I could laugh with."

Kim De Lutis, a freelancer in the Web department at Garnet Hill and painting No. six, has a wonderful sense of humor, Kimball said, and she made it obvious to him that laughter was key.

All these themes and the "tremendous support" of people that were there for him from that day in July have helped him heal physically and emotionally.

Having a hobby, Kimball said, was also a blessing because it carried him beyond the years of pain that he described as feeling like he had broken glass in his head all the time or a migraine for a year and a half.

"If you have a hobby, you have a focus that's beyond pain or boredom."

"When I look back at the past two years, what I remember is the laughter and excitement of producing this art."

And now, after having finished all six portraits, he knows exactly what he's looking at.

Kimball plans to sell limited-edition prints of the portraits. He can be reached through his website, http://www.explorepotential.com/.

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