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Interview with Dannielle Hayes

Dannielle Hayes

Professional Photographer

Stroke Survivor

May you please tell me a little bit about yourself? Such as your occupation and life before your stroke.

I was born in Quebec City. I moved west when I was about three because my father went down to South America and was killed in his plane. My mother got a job as a teacher in a logging camp. Although I was only three, they counted me as the tenth child since they needed ten children in order to hire my mother as the teacher. We lived in a log cabin which doubled as a school. She remarried, and we moved to Victoria. I grew up in Victoria until I was 20.

Then I moved to New York City, which was quite a cultural change. I had been recommended for a job there as an interior designer. I worked for a small design firm and designed Hilton hotel interiors. I also worked on the World’s Fair held in New York in 1964. I went to school at the Lee Cooper Union, which was the only free university in North America at the time. I was only one of two women in the whole architectural school. I studied architecture for two years. However, I thought, I will not be able to do it since it would take 12 years to get my license. At the time, I didn’t want to be living in New York for 12 years. That’s when I switched to fine arts.

Turns out I lived in New York for almost fifty years. During that time I took a photography class as well, and that changed the course of my studies. Then I became a photographer. Since I was in New York, I got closer to what was going on in the United Nations and also the diplomatic world. I was sent out to an assignment to South East Asia and to Africa because I speak a couple of different languages. I would go off to West Africa for instance where aside from the native dialect, I would usually have to be speaking French. I did a lot of work with the United Nations and other businesses. I was juggling clients.

I cheated death at least a dozen times. I’m a three-time breast cancer survivor. I’ve been crashed in a hot-air balloon and got headfirst through the windshield of a car. I had to take the glass out of my head. My body has been through a lot. It’s like a trainwreck. However, I’ve kept going. My brain is still intact, thank goodness.

I’ve taught photography and video in the university system. I enjoy working with corporations. I worked with the Canon Corporation, Canon Latin America in Venezuela, Canon Latin America in Mexico, Canada, and the USA. I was going to have a show on Fifth Avenue in New York. I contacted Kodak and said, “Would you sponsor to make some really big prints because I was going to be in a major building on Fifth Avenue in New York.” They have these huge windows on Fifth Avenue. I thought I had to have these prints as large as possible. Kodak said they’ll give me sixteen by twenty prints. I declined the offer since it isn’t big enough. Instead, I called Canon. They said, “Why don’t you come over here to our headquarters and we’ll teach you how to make big prints. Also, how to use our machines.” This had started this love affair with the Canon cooperation. I also met with them in Tokyo several years after that when I was invited to Japan. I was one of only two people in North America to be invited to Japan.

I was inspired by photography by going through some old photographs that my grandfather had taken. They were taken around 1890 or 1900. He took them back east, actually around a river valley. He has a wonderful shot of all these first nation’s chiefs. Absolutely beautiful shots. I reshot those from the photo album and blew them up really big. Now they’re hanging in my living room.

I taught several workshops while using Canon color laser copiers. I realized I could make colors from black and white. I don’t think even the Canon cooperation realized this at the time. With the laser machines, I could make color from black and white because in those gray tones, if you really look into a photograph you could see little pixels that have millions of colors in them. Laser light works differently than other light forms, so I was able to take advantage of that and make colored photographs.

Please describe the nature of your injury.

I’ve traveled to over 84 different countries, mostly on assignments. I worked for TIME magazine, New Week, National Geography, and some MGOs like Helen Keller International. I was back in Vancouver in October 2010. I was ready to pack up on my way to New York. However, I decided I was going to spend some time with my daughter and family in Los Angeles on the way back. It would go from Vancouver to Los Angeles to New York.

In L.A. I had a stroke. I had no idea what a stroke was. I didn’t know if it involved the brain or anything like that. My daughter did. She called 911, and I was trotted off to UCLA hospital where I went into a coma for about a week. I don’t know if it was medically induced or whether it was a coma that I just went into naturally, but I remember the feeling of them drilling holes in the top of my head. It felt like somebody was grabbing something and yanking it out. I still have scars on the top of my skull.

Then my daughter said, “After a week of being in a coma, you came out of it laughing and telling jokes.” They decided I was alright enough to leave. They took me back to Vancouver. I went to BGH, Vancouver General, and then UBC Hospital.

What was really interesting was that after a while, my brain seemed to go into overdrive. I was starting to remember all these obscure addresses that I have lived in, and people I haven’t thought of for years. Suddenly their name would pop up. I thought this was really interesting, there’s got to be a reason for this. I have written all this down. I published it in a book called Traveling Light: Photographic Memories of the Global Nomad. It has half stories and half photographs. I wrote it one hundred pages in chronological order. Then I sent a copy out to my daughter. Her response was “Mom, I read the juicy bits.” Then I sent another copy to a friend’s wife who was a copy editor. She said, “Who do you think you’re going to sell it to?” I actually never thought of that. Afterward, I actually put that hundred pages away in a drawer and I never looked at them again.

I started again from scratch. My grandson at the time was just starting to read chapter books. I thought that was a good idea. I wrote down chapters, and then I filled in those chapters with stories. Some of them overlap. The last thing I added was photographs. I had a volunteer student from UBC who helped me layout everything. I had already done two books before that, but one of them was published in 1977 by William R. Cole. On my business card, it says “Photographer, writer, illustrator, and publisher.” The Calendar made me a publisher. I really started getting into the publishing world. I learned a lot from that. That was one positive thing that came out of my stroke.

What do you think would be the biggest difference before your stroke and after.

Most people used to be able to get ideas. I’d just hop up on a jet place and go off halfway around the world. Now I’m confiding in a wheelchair. My world has shrunk. Fortunately, I have taken millions of photographs when I was able-bodied. They’re still selling through my agent in New York because now they’re considered to be archival. I was just talking to someone I know this morning. She was saying how many people save all their lives to be able to travel at their old age, but they discover too late that their body begins to break down. They are not able to travel. Now, of course of covid, nobody is able to travel. I’m glad I got to see the world when I could.

What inspired you to make art? What are some of your common subjects in your art?

My first oil painting was when I was four years old. My grandmother knew this woman who was a landscape painter; she painted in oils. My sister and I often visit this woman and her house, which was a couple of blocks away from where my grandmother lived. I remember the smell of turpentine. It was a very strong smell. I remember her friend assigned me to paint this wild rose. I thought it was simple enough. Just add a pink rose and some green leaves, that’s it. Well, no, that was only the beginning. She really taught me to look at the details. She would say, “See where that rose petal curls around, what you see underneath there, it’s actually a shade of purple.” I would put purple under there. Green was not just green. It was yellow and white where the light was reflected on the shiny surface. The rose was a million different shades of pink and red.

That was my really first art lesson, and I learned a lot from that. Later, when I was in architecture, I was the first girl in the city to take drafting instead of home economics since I already know how to cook and sew. My art teacher thought I would make a great architect, so I sat in the boys’ class with them. I drafted an art storeroom for the high school, which was built in the summer. I was very proud because I knew I had detailed each drawer and laid it on the drawing book. Even to this day, I can look at a set of blueprints and can imagine in three dimensions. My daughter’s been doing some renovation on one of their houses. She sent me a set of blueprints and I know exactly what it looks like in three dimensions. I believe this is a special talent.

Do you think art has contributed to your recovery?

Yes, it definitely has. I was hesitant for a while to pick up my cameras because I was sort of in mourning that I could not just jump on a jet plane and fly to the other side of the world. Physically, I had a hard time changing lenses. This was before digital cameras. When I would have to carry 30 to 50 pounds of camera equipment on my back, which included film. I had to run off in time with this 50-pound bag on my back to catch a plane or chase after the action.

I started to get back into painting. I did some watercolor sketches. Lots of canvases and paints. I also look at some of my photographs. I look at my reduced world, which is basically here and other parts of Vancouver. I started to notice the details or quality of light at different times of the day. If it was sunny and I would just zoom in on some details or I would see the sun reflecting off buildings down in downtown Vancouver. I see most of it through my window. I would say, “That’s special and that would be a very fleeting image.” I knew I had to take it right away to capture it. I noticed things in a much smaller world. It’s still very detail orientated. If I was shooting a flower, for instance, I would come in as close as possible and just get right into it.

Because of my art background, I became the curator of the Art After Stroke program. It happens once a year in Vancouver. We used to have it in the Brown House community center. We would get various sponsors of people to contribute food or contribute wine. We would send out invitations to various people who we thought would be art admirers. We would also advertise it and put up posters. Trying to get more people who were stroke survivors interested in contributing their arts. Some people I know who are a part of the stroke group have been photographers before their stroke or they had discovered painting after their stroke.

The first year, I bought a painting from a fellow who’s from the Philippines and he had discovered painting after his stroke. He had an incredible painting on display. I bought it off him and it’s hanging in my bedroom right now. He had worked as an auto mechanic. When he had a stroke, he thought he couldn’t work in the auto mechanic field then.

Some people said to themselves that they’ve wanted to paint. They began being a part of a painting program and really tried out some really great stuff. I encourage people to do that because a lot of times, people would go into a job because they’re rather forced by their parents. They would get stuck in some horrible job that they hate. It pays the rent, puts food on the table, you know the whole thing. However, they really desire to paint, photograph, sculpt, make music, write, or do any of these things other than the job that they have had. They feel forced to do just to survive.

How do you think your arts have changed throughout the years?

It has changed a lot. I shoot digitally and shoot with my iPhone camera. I still manipulate the photographs. Rather on the phone itself or I put it into procreate, which is a program on my iPad. I would do some fancy stuff around it. I even made some covid masks using my photographs. I applied the photographs to my mask through Vistaprint, although it was a bit expensive.

Are there any people you’re most thankful for in your recovery from stroke?

My daughter in California. My grandchildren, who I haven’t seen in more than a year. Some Physios and my kinesiologist from Venezuela. Some other people in the disability world who I made good friends with. The head of the disability foundation here.

I’ve also become very politically involved. In 2013, I approached the Vancouver city hall, and I proposed what I called “Access Vancouver’’. It had to do with excessive disability in Vancouver. Since I have worked in tourism, I thought if disable tourists can come here and enjoy our parks, shops, movie theaters, and museums, this will also help people who have disabilities here too. So, I made up this proposal. I designed a logo and marched up to city hall. I was in a wheelchair by then. I presented it to the deputy mayor at the time named Heather Deal. I remember Heather saying, “Oh, you’re so organized. Not everyone who comes here with a proposal is so organized.” I said, “Well, I had to be organized since I worked freelance for most of my life. Also, I work in a very competitive field as in photography, I’ve had to be really organized.” She liked my proposal a lot and shared it with the other city counselors.

Then I was teaching the first disability photography workshop and one of my students who was with Work BC, Pat called me one time. She said, “Danielle, the federal minister of disabilities is here in Richmond. Can you come out to Richmond and meet her?” I said, “No, I can’t because it’s an ordeal to get out of Vancouver to Richmond.” I would have to take a handicart and it was too late to book one. However, I’ve sent her the proposal that I’ve given to Heather over email. She showed it to the federal minister of disabilities who was Carla Qualtrough. Carla is sight-impaired, and she’s an athlete in swimming. She had won some gold medals. She wanted to meet with me. I arranged with a friend of mine to take me out to her office. I met with her staff. Since she was sight-impaired, I redid the proposal with some added features and larger types so she could read it. Two days after I met with her, she declared: Access Canada. Just recently, this past January, she passed the Canadians with Disabilities Act through federal parliament. It’s gotten its own momentum. I’m a very active advocate of people with disabilities and work a lot with the Disability Foundation. I’ve also worked with several of the ministers here, locally and federally.

What would you say are the most important insights you have gained after your stroke?

I’m not alone in my struggles and for rehab. There are endless possibilities. There are real barriers and imaginary barriers. Real barriers being if you want to go to an office building and there’s no elevator or no way to get in that particular office. That would be a real barrier. An imaginary barrier is if you just haven’t tried something before. I’ve said this before in an interview: “If a monkey can figure out how to use a stick to get honey out of a hollow of a tree, then surely we can figure out how to get around these barriers.” Just to keep going and advocate. Ask lots of questions. Never stop learning and don’t take anything for granted. If you see an injustice, speak up. Don’t hesitate to go to the press, don’t hesitate to go to the media, don’t hesitate to make trouble, don’t hesitate in asking for help. The worst thing that could happen is someone saying “no”.

Where do you see yourself in one year from now?

If I win the lottery, I would be on a nice sunny beach in Mexico or Panama. Failing that, I would say that I would probably have my fourth book published. Hopefully, be able to walk a bit better than I have been doing. I’d definitely love to be able to visit my family in California.

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