Coming into focus

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 22, 2014

 Everyday tasks like making a sandwich are among the images Patricia Lay-Dorsey captured of herself for “Falling into Place.” She’ll be giving a presentation about the book Jan. 30 at the Woods Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library.

Everyday tasks like making a sandwich are among the images Patricia Lay-Dorsey captured of herself for “Falling into Place.” She’ll be giving a presentation about the book Jan. 30 at the Woods Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library.

Photo by Patricia Lay-Dorsey, from “Falling into Place”

GROSSE POINTE FARMS/WOODS — Before she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, longtime Farms resident Patricia Lay-Dorsey — a social worker, artist and activist — had been physically active and fiercely independent.

Since her diagnosis more than 25 years ago, she has traveled to Belgium and Lebanon and driven to New York City by herself. She continues to swim regularly, and she routinely attends major festivals downtown, including the Movement Electronic Music Festival, where she’s known as “Grandma Techno” and can be seen moving to the beat in her Amigo mobility scooter. For Lay-Dorsey, everything has changed — but in a way, nothing has changed.

She has documented her life, from her perspective, in a new collection of photographs, “Falling into Place,” recently published by Ffotogallery, the national development agency for photography in Wales.

“I decided it was going to be intimate and it was going to be truthful,” Lay-Dorsey said from her Farms home. “In some cases, the pictures are hard to look at. But I hope it’s showing the whole of my life — the challenges, as well as the joy.”

Lay-Dorsey will be giving a free presentation on her book at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at the Woods Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library. She’ll have copies of the book available for anyone who’d like to purchase one.

“She’s a local author, and we like to promote our local authors,” said Diana Howbert, a reference librarian with the Grosse Pointe Public Library. “And she has an amazing story to tell in these amazing photographs.”

Lay-Dorsey’s life took an unexpected turn when she experienced her first mysterious fall in January 1988, when she was 45. As a swimmer, tennis player, trained dancer and someone who had run marathons and gone on 200-mile-long bike treks, she was stunned when, eight months after that tumble, she received a diagnosis of chronic (primary) progressive multiple sclerosis.

“This body that I thought I knew had become a stranger. … The thing I thought was the worst was that I had always looked forward to the future, and all of a sudden, the future was taken away from me,” Lay-Dorsey said. “I had no idea what was going to happen to me next.”

In 2008, she began documenting life from her perspective with her camera, using a self-timer or a cordless remote-controlled shutter release to capture unexpected images — from everyday tasks to enjoying a quiet moment outside in the snow.

“I had to look at every moment of my life in the most real, unflinching (ways),” Lay-Dorsey said. “I had to go face-to-face with it all. I could no longer keep blinders on.”

The process turned out to be personally transformative.

“I found things that I never knew about myself,” Lay-Dorsey said. “I found that I have a lot of shame. I hate it when people see me fall. … And yet here (in the book) are pictures of me falling.”

The project brought her “to an entirely different place” and resulted in serious self-examination.

“I feel more comfortable saying I’m a disabled person,” Lay-Dorsey said. “It isn’t my only identity, but it is very much a part of who I am, and it does inform much of my world view. … It isn’t that I would choose to be disabled … but I way prefer myself now.”

One of the founders of the Raging Grannies peace activist chapter in metro Detroit, Lay-Dorsey has long been an independent spirit with a passion for social change. Married for 47 years to retired psychiatrist Edward Dorsey, Lay-Dorsey, 71, has lived in the Farms since 1971. She earned her master’s degree in social work from the Smith College School for Social Work — her mother’s alma mater — in 1966. Lay-Dorsey said her mother, Emily Miller Lay, took a boat from North Carolina to Boston by herself so she could study social work at Smith during a time when few women went to college, much less dreamed of careers outside the home.

“She was a feisty woman,” Lay-Dorsey said. “Any bit of feistiness I have, I get from her.”

Howbert, who has known Lay-Dorsey — a regular library visitor — for years, said, “She doesn’t let anything stop her.”

But Lay-Dorsey insists she doesn’t see herself as brave, nor does she want to be viewed with pity — the two labels she sees most commonly affiliated with people who have disabilities.

“I originally started the book with the intention of showing day-to-day life with a disability,” Lay-Dorsey said. “As time has gone on — and I’ve had a lot of responses to the project — (I realized) everybody has challenges. It just happens that my major challenge is so visible.”

Her book — and related exhibitions of the photos at prestigious art galleries — have already been celebrated by the international art world. “Falling into Place” received third prize in the 2010 FotoVisura Grant for Outstanding Personal Photography Project, and first prize at the 2013 Photo Annual Awards in Prague. Work from the book has been featured in Newsweek Japan, Visura Magazine and the New York Times Lens blog, among others.

But besides its place in the art world, Lay-Dorsey hopes “Falling into Place” will be useful for medical professionals, social workers and people with conditions like hers. She now teaches social work classes with topics like human diversity and will be the keynote speaker during a meeting of the Michigan chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in March.

“I would love to see this book in rehab centers,” she said. “I would love to see it in doctors’ offices.”

Although “Falling into Place” has been a big focus in recent years, Lay-Dorsey has worked on other projects, including a series of photos of Detroit seniors that she said could also be a book.

“My photographs are almost always of people,” she said. “I love people. They fascinate me.”

Lay-Dorsey’s goal is to have a positive impact on the lives of others with “Falling into Place.”

“I hope they won’t see it as a book about (me) or a book about disability, but more (as a book) about living life full-out,” she said. “Whatever comes your way, live life to the fullest.”

The Woods Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library is located at Mack and Vernier, next to Parcells Middle School. Although Lay-Dorsey’s talk is free, reservations are required, as space is limited. To reserve a seat or for more information, call (313) 343-2074, ext. 222, or use the online calendar at www.gp.lib.mi.us. To see examples of her work, visit www.patricialaydorsey.com.