Megan Mosholder works on her light-based sculpture as part of “PRISM: Winter Lights in Woodruff Park.” PHOTO BY ELISSA BENZIE
Photo: Elissa Benzie
Photo: Elissa Benzie

Atlanta artist survives serious burns: returns to public art career

On some days, hooked up to wires and tubes in the burn center at Grady Hospital, Megan Mosholder would hallucinate that she was still trapped in the flaming car.

In terror she would try to rip off the bonds that held her arms and legs immobile.

“They called her Houdini,” said her mother, Nancy Mosholder. “She could always figure out a way to get those straps off.”

A year ago the artist almost died in a fiery automobile accident. She suffered third degree burns over 60 percent of her body, had 16 surgeries and was in the hospital for 145 days.

But last week Megan Mosholder was back at work, creating a large-scale installation in Woodruff Park using 14,000 feet of nylon rope.

Though hobbled by serious damage to her legs and feet, Mosholder, 43, seemed free of her shackles. She scooted out of her wheelchair, hoisted herself three steps up into a scissor-lift, then held onto the rails as it lifted her 20 feet into the air, up to the ceiling of the gazebo at the southern edge of the park.

"Davidstern," the installation by Megan Mosholder at Woodruff Park, glows under the ultraviolet lights. CONTRIBUTED: DAVID BATTERMAN

There she began to carefully paint the network of nylon ropes that she and her team had installed around the perimeter of the structure. Though nine of her toes were amputated, her legs were strong enough to bear her weight for short periods.

“She’s tough,” said Lucas Rocheleau, a member of her team. “I’ve been on a job site where it’s 100 degrees out there and she’s out on the scaffolding.” The work is part of “PRISM: Winter Lights at Woodruff Park,” an exhibition of public art at the downtown green space.

Later this week she will continue work on an installation on the BeltLine. She also has projects underway at a large tech company’s offices in Pittsburgh and another corporate installation in Chicago.

While she was still in the hospital, before she could talk on the phone because her tracheotomy tube was still in her throat, she nonetheless began working on yet another project, ordering materials online.

She refuses to stop. “I know that when I set my mind on something I will accomplish it,” she said recently. “I’m still pushing, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I healed so quickly and why I’m doing so well now. Other people might still be in a hospital bed. But that’s just not me.”

The arc that propelled Mosholder to success, then disaster, and then to her current reincarnation, is a remarkable story of indomitable will and drive. Her drive, she will tell you, is what saved her life. But that same drive, she said, is what brought her to death’s door.

Though she uses a wheelchair, artist Megan Mosholder is developing enough strength in her legs to stand up for short periods. PHOTO BY ELISSA BENZIE
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When she was 5 years old, growing up in Columbus, Ohio, her parents let Mosholder take children’s art classes at nearby Ohio State University. But after one season of lessons she told her mother she wasn’t going back. The teachers weren’t taking her seriously. “They think I’m a little kid, and I’m an artist,” she told her mother.

With master’s degrees in painting and in education, she found her way to an internship with blue chip New York artist Teresita Fernandez, working at her Brooklyn studio on a high-profile installation that would end up in Shanghai. Fernandez took a look at Mosholder’s studio constructions and told her three things: You are a sculptor, not a painter; you need to work bigger; and you need to go outside the studio.

At the time Mosholder was painting on matrices of stretched cords, creating a kind of three-dimensional hybrid. She began to get commissions for large-scale public installations, but she couldn’t afford to stay in Brooklyn. She moved in with her parents Rick and Nancy Mosholder, who had come to Marietta so that Rick could teach psychology at Kennesaw State University.

On Sept. 5, 2018, Megan had just returned to Atlanta from a fellowship in Tulsa, had just had a show in Brooklyn, was working feverishly on an installation at the Renaissance hotel in Midtown and was preparing a lecture as a beginning adjunct professor of art at Kennesaw State.

At 8:30 that evening, while returning from Midtown to Marietta, her Pontiac left South Cobb Drive near Cobb Parkway, vaulted a temporary concrete barrier, flipped and landed upside down, wedged in a group of trees. Passersby called Cobb public safety to report a rollover accident that was smoking.

By the time the Marietta Fire Department’s Paul Molinaro was headed to the scene, that call had been upgraded to a vehicle on fire.

Megan Mosholder's Pontiac G6 left the road and landed upside down, wedged among these trees, before catching fire. CONTRIBUTED: MARIETTA FIRE DEPARTMENT

Cobb Police Officer Oscar Escarcega arrived at the accident around the same time as Molinaro. “It looked like something out of a movie,” he said. “The car was completely engulfed in flames.”

Then the rescuers heard screams inside the car. Within seconds Molinaro’s colleagues Lars Marvin and James Walker were training a hose on the vehicle. The gas tank had ruptured and gasoline was leaking into the interior, feeding the flames. Marvin and Walker finally got the fire knocked down, opened the passenger door of the upside-down vehicle, and pulled Mosholder out. Escarcega helped them hand her over the concrete barrier.

Her clothes and skin were charred, her lips and tongue were black from breathing in toxic fumes, but she looked at Molinaro and said “I want to go home.”

“I was shocked that she was talking,” Molinaro said.

Mosholder remembers none of that, nor does she remember explaining to friends in the ICU that the accident was triggered when she dropped her water bottle. Looking back, Mosholder sees that she was pushing too hard, and that the universe was telling her to slow down. She was charged with driving in excess of the speed limit and with a DUI. Mosholder remembers having a few beers at dinner with her crew, but was surprised at the charge.

Still, she’s glad to do the community service required of her, helping by volunteering at Grady’s Burn Center, talking to patients. (Her instinct to pay back the life that was returned to her is evident at Woodruff Park, where she and her crew handed out 75 kits containing new socks, toiletries and bottles of water to the homeless who congregate there.)

Her work isn’t usually autobiographical, but she made reference to her accident in a piece for the Mint Gallery called “Trial by Fire,” utilizing a rope network and partially burned wood. Mosholder can’t pilot a car yet. When she got out of the hospital her parents drove her to Marietta to bring cookies to the cops and firefighters who saved her life.

There are more operations in her future, to release scar tissue contractures. In the meantime, Mosholder is doing self-directed physical therapy, riding an exercise bicycle, and working steadily to learn to walk again. She counts herself lucky that the flames missed her face and hair. What the flames spared the doctors shaved, to harvest the skin from her scalp as donor skin to repair other damaged areas. (Her once-long hair is now a boyish bob.)

Most of her tattoos burned off. She recently got a new one, on her left forearm.

It features a flowering tree, and the word “breathe.”

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