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Portrait of the artist as phoenix

The inferno of a car crash nearly destroyed Allison Massari's career. But her current one-woman show reveals a talent resurrected.

By DAVE SCHEIBER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 2000


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[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Allison Massari puts the finishing touches on one of her pieces, a collage from her “Eve” series.
ST. PETERSBURG -- The collage taped to the wall is a beautiful swirl of color and energy. From countless shreds of paper, each tiny piece carefully cemented into place, the striking form of a woman emerges. Artist Allison Massari gazes at her creation, looking for any last touches of light and shade to make it whole -- the final work for an exhibit that is all about completion and new life.

Massari knows from personal experience about forging scattered fragments into something filled with fresh possibilities, meaning and hope.

On April 30, 1998, she was driving home to Largo after seeing a movie. A car smashed into her 1979 Jeep Cherokee, engulfing it in flames.

Massari was trapped, fully conscious of the fiery steering wheel and dash and the thick black smoke. She smelled her own flesh burning as the vinyl cover from her seat melted into the skin on her back. She screamed for help and said what she thought were her final prayers. At that instant, a Vietnam veteran named Roger Pepper kicked in her window amid the blaze and lifted her to safety.

Massari was near death, the flesh on her back seared away and 30 percent of her skin destroyed. But her lungs and internal organs were not damaged. In the coming months, she held on through excruciating treatments, buoyed by her deep Christian faith, the love and encouragement of her family, and an outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike.

Still, her right arm -- her painting arm -- was held tight to her side by scar tissue. Doctors told her she would probably never have full use of it again. It was a devastating blow for a promising artist, then 32. She had given up a physics program at Vanderbilt University to cultivate a new dream at Rhode Island School of Design, despite having no prior art training. She was on the cusp of a career breakthrough, with major dealers ready to sign her, when the crash occurred.

That is why Massari can hardly believe where she is today: staging her own exhibit of contemporary paintings, collages, sketches and jewelry at Ambiance Galleries in St. Petersburg. Her first show since the crash, it consists of nearly 20 works she has created in the past eight months -- with a right arm she can now use again in full motion and with a spirit re-energized.

"I'm so excited. This show just means so much to me that I can't even put it in words," says Massari, who turned 35 on Wednesday. "There was a time I never ever, ever dreamed I would get here."

* * *

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Eve’s Feast, 48 by 60 inches, oil.

The name of her exhibit is "I'll Tell You A Secret." It is the title of one of Massari's paintings, an impressionistic self-portrait in which she is surrounded by doves. The name is taken from a poem she wrote in 1994 about angels watching over her. The words are reprinted inside the show's official invitation. It begins with a simple sentiment: "I am serene."

That applies to Massari now, despite what she has endured -- the unfathomable pain of open wounds on her back, leg and arm, multiple skin grafts, grueling physical therapy, many moments of doubt.

Massari, however, has discovered blessings despite the horror of the accident. "For a long time, it would have been a lot easier to die," she says. "But despite all of those things that happened, so much more good has happened from it."

For one thing, she has come to see life and its potential with greater clarity. "I was always appreciative of what I had, but now I'm able to put my present and my future in greater perspective and focus better on the things that matter to me," she says.

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Study for Eve, 5 by 7 inches, pastel.
Near the top of the list is a ski camp she created for burned children from the Tampa Bay area. The idea came to her barely six months after her accident. Massari had moved to Colorado from her native St. Petersburg to begin intensive physical therapy in the soothing cool of the mountains. She overheard somebody talking about one-week camps in Vail for children with AIDS, cancer and serious burns.

Massari found the woman in charge of the camp for young burn victims, hoping to volunteer. Instead, she learned it had been cancelled for lack of new participants. She talked the woman into letting her stage a camp for Tampa Bay children, set initially for January 1999.

But then the funding fell through. If Massari wanted the camp to be a reality, she would have to raise the money herself. Though still recovering, she did just that. With donations from area people and businesses, including $10,000 from St. Pete Beach resident Richard Maloof, Massari and business acquaintance Mandy Luber staged the first camp in January.

Her exhibit premier Thursday night was to serve as a fundraiser for the camp this January. Massari has dedicated it, as her show, to the stranger who risked his own life to rescue her. It is called the Roger Pepper Snow Camp.

"Some people have said, "Oh, doing the camp must be a healing thing for you,' but I didn't do it for that reason -- I've learned something being burned, and I can help somebody as a result," she says. "Just to see the children and their faces, and watch them blossom, and then hear from their parents how much it meant to the kids, that's an incredible feeling."

* * *

There have been many key steps in her journey back.

She will never forget the young therapist in Colorado, just out of college, who was determined to help Massari regain use of her arm. Day after day, for months on end, the young woman and other staff members stretched and pulled Massari's contracted scar tissue. The pain was agonizing. Every day, skin broke and bled. But soon, Massari was moving her arm higher and higher. Then the therapist, Tracy Bowler, handed her a marker and asked her to start drawing on an erasable board. It was the start.

But there was still much emotional healing to face. For a time, she says, she turned her back on God. "I hit rock bottom," she says. "I couldn't understand how he could let this happen to me. But I did tons of thinking, reading and praying, and I realized that God wasn't to blame. We just live in a world that's imperfect, where there's free will, and you can get caught in the middle of the consequences. He's not orchestrating us to do things. Fire doesn't know if it's burning a person or wood. A virus doesn't know if it's attacking a bad person or an infant. I realized that God was there with me, weeping alongside me."

Perhaps the pivotal point of her comeback had to do with identity. "It had been months of sleep deprivation in the hospital and home, and my identity became being burned," she says. "But then, I remember one day somebody said to me, "Allison, you are not a burn.' It was simple, but it hit me hard."

She became determined not to let her burns define her. "What I didn't want was to be a sympathetic figure or to be pitied," she says. "I remembered I'm an artist, and I'm a daughter, a sister, a friend -- who happens to be burned. I want to live and contribute."

Massari began contributing again artistically when an owner of Ambiance Galleries invited her last year to do a one-woman show of new work this November. She dove in, working daily 7 a.m. to midnight shifts for months in a surge of creative energy at her Vail studio.

Her first painting was a still life on a massive canvas, and everything flowed from there. Massari has sold the work to a Colorado artist, who, she learned later, had lost everything in a fire.

That piece is on display with other paintings that share key symbols and themes. There are doves, for angels and prayers. There is a piece entitled Fire and Fruit. "It's about a decision one could make," she says. "I feel like I was walking a tightrope this whole time, and I could have gone to either side, despair or darkness, or life and hope."

Her "Eve" series features a female figure holding an apple -- representing free will and choice, underscoring the decision she made in her own life to push on. "It also stands for a new beginning," she says, "because I feel very much like that."

One reason is a man she fell in love with last year in Colorado, after literally bumping into him in a crowd. The relationship has grown serious, and when it comes to her next big project, Massari responds, "I want to focus on being in love."

photo
[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Allison Massari
A perfect touch in the collage of a life renewed.

About the show

"I'll Tell You a Secret," a new series of paintings, collages, drawings, mixed media works and jewelry by Allison Massari, opens at Ambiance Galleries 5:30-9 p.m. today, in conjunction with the downtown gallery walk. The gallery address is 1535 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. N, St. Petersburg. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat. The show runs through Dec. 2. Call (727) 821-8331. The Internet address for Massari's e-commerce site showcasing her jewelry is http://www.MassariFineArts.com

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