Transforming Illness with Creativity
This issue of AHN News is dedicated to using creativity to heal and transform illness.
I begin with an interview with artist Elizabeth Jameson, who has used art as an empowering process in her journey with Multiple Sclerosis.
I review Dr. Bernie Siegel’s new book, The Art of Healing, which explores how to use crayon drawing, dreams and visualization to assist in the healing process.
Finally I offer a link to the Foundation for Art & Healing, which offers terrific resources on using art to heal illnesses like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Heart Disease.
May this issue inspire you to use art-making as part of your healing journey,
~ Mary Daniel Hobson, Director of Arts & Healing Network
“By transforming my brain scans, I reclaim ownership of my brain and no longer feel like a victim or a patient: I am a person. My identity is no longer defined by my disease.” ~ Elizabeth Jameson
is an artist whose work explores the beauty and complexity of the brain. Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1992, she turned from a career in law to one in art – using her illness, specifically her brain scans, as a source of inspiration. She often exhibits her work in medical and healthcare settings, hoping that it will “remind viewers that this grey tissue and the body that shelters it represent far more than illness and human imperfection.”
Mary Daniel Hobson: Elizabeth, please tell me a little bit about how your journey as an artist began.
Elizabeth Jameson: My journey to become an artist was a roundabout one. I graduated from Stanford University with a BA in 1973 and received a law degree from Boalt Hall School of Law in 1976. Following that, I completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Health Policy at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine (UCSF) from 1984-86, where I studied under the direction of Dr. Philip Lee, former HHS Assistant Secretary for Health and Chancellor of the UCSF medical school. Prior to becoming an artist, I worked both as a health policy analyst and as a lawyer specialized in health law. My specialization was on policy regarding children with disabilities and chronic illness.
During the Clinton Administration, I consulted with members of Congress on the legal definition of “medically necessary” healthcare for children under managed care contract plans. In addition, I taught public health courses for sixteen years at the School of Public Health, University of California at Berkeley. So from the beginning, I had an interest in health and healing. However, my life was to change profoundly in 1992 when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). This happened after an episode where I lost my ability to speak and underwent brain surgery, which ended my legal career. Prior to my episode, I had been an extremely verbal person. As I was regaining my speech, I turned to art as a means of expression. It led me to enroll at California College of the Arts, where I studied painting and drawing.
Mary Daniel: How has art been a healing catalyst for you?
When I first became an artist, I was working traditionally, painting subjects such as flowers and portraits. However, I was still unsatisfied. Since I was young, I wanted to contribute to making the world a better place, and as a public health lawyer, I felt like I was achieving this goal. Now, as an artist, I wanted to find a course that led in a similar direction. Neurologists track MS through magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) of the brain. They are one of the universal symbols of MS. Nowadays all these scans are digital, but when I was first diagnosed MRIs were still printed on film. Patients like myself often had whole stacks of these scans. Having a brain scan is not a neutral act - a patient lies as still as possible in a narrow, coffin-like space, while having the intimacies and naked structure of their brain revealed to others. The results of these scans were frightening, yet mesmerizing. I realized that I wanted to reinterpret these scans, to imbue them with color and emotion, and express a sense of wonder at this remarkable organ. I aim to capture the frailties, humor, and idiosyncrasies that make us human.
As my MS has developed into the progressive stage, I have become confined to a wheelchair. My continuing progression informs my studio practice providing me with new images, in the form of MRIs and new brain scan technologies. More importantly, by transforming my brain scans, I reclaim ownership of my brain, and no longer feel like a victim or a patient: I am a person. My identity is no longer defined by my disease. Through the making of my art, I redefine myself as an activist rather than a passive victim. I find my disease fascinating. For better or worse, as a person who has a progressive disease, I have a body that keeps on giving me news sources of inspiration for my art. I love my life, despite the progression of my disease, largely because I’ve taken this progression and made it part of my art.
More importantly, I am taking my art places where it can be seen by patients, as well as of medical professionals, all in the attempt to add to the narrative of chronic illness.
Mary Daniel: What impact would you most like your work to have on the world?
Elizabeth: I have two goals. The first is to have patients view the brain as fascinating and beautiful, so that they do not feel forced to look away from the stark reality of brain disease. Secondly, I want healthcare providers to acknowledge patients as being fascinating people who have their own individual narratives of illness. I want to make people with chronic illness be visible and be seen as individuals - not victims.
The narrative of illness in society is that of acute, not chronic illness. The stories told about acute illness generally have an arc; they are not a continual, lifelong experience. Those with a chronic illness are confined by their bodies, and deal with feelings of invisibility, inadequacy, and physical disconnection; and the notion that their bodies belong more to their doctors than themselves. As an artist with a disease of the brain, I hope my work allows those with a disease of the brain to see themselves as more than their illness, and to reclaim their bodies. Through my work, those with disabilities can see their bodies, not as sources of embarrassment, pain, or suffering; instead, they can perceive the exquisite color and intricate dimensionality of their anatomy.
Mary Daniel: Could you share one piece of art and the story behind it?
I'd like to share two, one is my silk wall hanging Circuit breaker Narrative
, and the other is my digital collage, Kaleidoscope
. I was working on these two pieces simultaneously, and they influenced one another. Circuit breaker Narrative
represents fragmentation of the individual within the context of medicine and chronic illness. It is comprised of pieces of silk sewn onto a larger piece of silk.
The pieces are all individual, and sewn on so as to flutter with air movement. The pieces are printed with details from a dizzying array of medical journals documenting the complexity of my disease, as well as financial reports that reveal the profits being made by the pharmaceutical industry. There are also details of my brain scans, medication labels, radiology reports and other medical records. I was trying to encapsulate the entirety of being an individual with a chronic illness within Western medicine.
Kaleidoscope, on the other hand, represents the fragments of the body. When a patient is diagnosed with a chronic illness, they must create a new life out of the fragments of their former life within emotional upheavals, medications and side effects, and medical appointments. It's like suddenly finding yourself in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, and don't have a map. You have to adapt and re-assemble your life. Visually, Kaleidoscope is a digital collage of my hand-pulled prints. I conceived of Kaleidoscope as shards of glass, making up a new whole. I wanted it to be full of bright colors, to suggest finding joy and leading a productive life, synthesized from the pieces.
Mary Daniel: Could you share some of your sources of inspiration?
I'm most inspired by my neuroscience and artistic colleagues. I have frequently collaborated with Dr. Silvia Bunge of UC Berkeley
, whose ground-breaking research on the brains of children in need inspired me to create the pieces, Silvia's Boy I
and Silvia's Boy II
My Art of the Brain
series was partially inspired by my mentor, master printmaker Sherry Smith Bell
. She was the person who initially taught me to print, and introduced me to solarplate etching. In solarplate etching, an artist uses a metal plate that has been coated with a photosensitive gelatin, which, when exposed to UV light through either sunlight or a light box, can be developed into an image. Sherry taught me this technique when I expressed my need to incorporate my MRIs, and helped me become the artist I am today.
Visually, I'm inspired by pattern: the works of Wosene Worke Kosrof
, who integrates texture, script, and color in his paintings, is very exciting to me. Another who inspires me is Laura Ferguson
, an artist who combines texture with anatomical imagery. My good friend Cheryl Bowlan
, constantly inspires me, challenges me, and pushes me to become the best artist I can be. Finally, I am inspired by my studio assistant, Michelle Wilson
, who introduces me to new possibilities and ideas. I continue to be active and ambitious because I have the support of my family. Without that, I literally couldn't do anything. My family and community of neuroscience, medical professionals and artist colleagues drive me to be the best artist I can be.
Mary Daniel: What excites you most about your work right now?
Elizabeth: I'm very excited about the idea of lecturing in medical schools on the narratives of chronic illness. I recently returned from lecturing and completing a permanent installation at the new MS Clinic at Yale University. What was so thrilling to me was that I could actually display my art to patients, family members, and providers, in the hopes that it will communicate the beauty and complexity of the disease.
In addition, I'm excited about my recent and upcoming exhibitions. This past June, I did an installation that was part of the exhibition, "Neuro-Cartographies,"
that was part of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM)
's 2013 conference. For the installation, I presented seven images based on MRI slices of the brain in a sequence. In addition, for the first time I incorporated sound into the space where my pieces were hung. Now, I am gearing up for a solo exhibition, "Testament to the Mind and Brain,"
at UCSF's Sandler Neuroscience Building's Memory and Aging Center.
The more disabled I become, the more ambitious I am to share my vision of the beauty of the brain in numerous materials and media. Because I have a body that "keeps on giving," in terms of the progression of my disease, I have neverending supply of ideas and imagery.
Mary Daniel: Could you offer some advice to others who would like to use their creativity to help them as they navigate disease and illness?
Elizabeth: For thirty years I've had a progressive disease. I've gone from being extremely active, to now, being in a wheelchair and recently, losing the use of my hands. I've gone from being bipedal to paraplegic to quadriplegic. I'm still actively involved in my artwork. The more disabled I become, the more ambitious I am. But I sure do not have wisdom to share with others, or even myself. What keeps me going is knowing that I have to keep giving and doing things for other people. I've always wanted to change the world, and I'm still trying.
To learn more about Elizabeth Jameson’s work please visit her website.
The Art of Healing: Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self Healing
by Bernie Siegel with Cynthia J. Hurn
reviewed by Mary Daniel Hobson
Medical doctor and spiritual teacher Bernie Siegel has just published a new book exploring how the body’s potential for healing can be accessed through creative processes like drawing, visualization and more. After studying the use of crayon drawings by patients facing life-threatening disease, Bernie was inspired to incorporate this practice into his medical practice. He quickly saw how the body’s innate propensity to heal can be enhanced through what are currently seen as unconventional practices, including drawing, visualization, dreams, love and laughter. Readers of The Art of Healing will learn how to use these practices to help with everything from diagnosing and understanding their illness to making the correct treatment decisions to sharing experiences with loved ones and caregivers.
The books thirteen chapters cover topics such as “Source, Significance and Validity of Symbols,” “The Power of Visualization,” and “Dreams: The Brains Creative Workshop.” He devotes two chapters to drawing in which he teaches a basic, yet profound process of using drawing to access inner wisdom, especially when facing health challenges. He offers myriad examples of how the simple act of drawing helped a patient allay fears, clarify their wishes, heal their relationships and more. His detailed instructions include an entire chapter in which he shares the drawings of his patients, and the interpretation of these drawings. The entire book is written in a very warm, accessible tone and is full of life-affirming stories. The Art of Healing is a terrific resource for anyone going through illness, or any other major life transition.
Published by New World Library in September 2013, The Art of Healing is available for purchase here. To learn more about the work of Dr. Bernie Siegel, please visit his website .
The Foundation for Art & Healing www.artandhealing.org
The mission of the Foundation for Art & Healing is to “explore the fundamental connection between art and the healing process, while providing active, ongoing support to communities and individuals.” They have produced wonderful videos including Can Art Be Medicine? In addition, they offer specific tools (as downloadable PDFs) to help people cope with diseases like Post-Tramautic Stress and Heart Disease.
To learn more about the Foundation for Art & Healing, visit their website.
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