ART & ENDOMETRIOSIS: PAINTING THROUGH THE PAIN

THE WAY THINGS FLOW (DETAIL), (2018)

THE WAY THINGS FLOW (DETAIL), (2018)

 

It took me a while to settle on a topic for this first piece, and the choice to focus on my experience with endometriosis was a difficult one. Not only is it incredibly personal, but illness is not what people are itching to read about, nor is it what I desire to associate myself or my art with. I want to be writing about my artistic process - experimenting with materials, drawing insight from walks in nature - and that will come. However, after recently being diagnosed and having undergone my second surgery for endometriosis in two years this past October, it is what affects me most and what often keeps me from going to the studio or wandering around in nature for inspiration. I also feel it is my job to promote awareness. Endometriosis has changed the way I live my life, but art has shaped how I perceive it. Rather than pity, I hope that reading this will enlist a sense of the strength art imbues and will demonstrate how it can be used as a tool for managing illness.

My art has always been a coping mechanism, and it was a big part of my life when my first symptoms appeared at ten years old. The pain came about a year before my first period did, and I vividly remember lying awake at night wondering why I was cramping each month. My mom gave me one of those guidebooks for pubescent girls which I looked to for answers, but otherwise it was just me and my pain. I suppose much of my anxiety and depression can be traced to those early days of isolation. Creativity was my constant. I poured all these feelings into my paintings and piano scales. My parents were very supportive, signing me up for after-school classes and lining all the walls with my artwork. Though I felt alone, I still felt connected. I look back at those days of introspection and find some comfort in them; these reclusive moments ignited a deep sense of self from a very early age and provided the foundation for an artistic process that I am still fine-tuning to this day.

When my period did start about a year later, it did so with brutal violence and soon kickstarted a host of other symptoms and chronic illnesses: fainting spells, sinusitis, asthma, allergies, migraines, mono (twice!). It seemed I was always sick, staying home from school multiple times each month throughout middle and high school. I once nearly passed out in my eleventh-grade art class and then stupidly drove myself home in agonizing pain. That art classroom was my refuge; and when I wasn’t working there, I’d be painting at my desk in my room, at the kitchen table or out on the patio, accompanied by my cat, Tigger, roaming amongst the plants lining the periphery of the pool. Having this outlet allowed me to keep up with the rapidly rising pile of work from missed classes, something that haunted my junior and senior years with the fear of not passing my AP courses, let alone being able to graduate on time. I was lucky to have some very supportive teachers who pushed my art and helped to keep it a reality (and fortunately I did graduate with the rest of my class).

 
MIGRAINE: ORBS (2015)

MIGRAINE: ORBS (2015)

 

In college, my health took a turn for the worse and my migraines and periods became even more painful. It was also the first time in my life that I wasn’t consistently making art. Although I was an art history major and required to take studio art, the classes at the university were crowded and I had to wait until my sophomore year. Even still, I was only allowed to take one art class per year, which became more difficult the deeper I got into my more advanced chemistry classes (I was minoring in chem to prepare for a MA in art conservation. NOTE - turpentine-soaked clothes and organic chemistry labs do not mix. However, I did become pretty adept at changing in my car in the ten minute break I had to get from one side of campus to the other). But it wasn’t until I graduated that I saw what a life of not creating meant for me. When I was studying, my head and my hands were in the game constantly. Although I did feel some disdain by the limitation of art classes available to me, studying the history and criticism of art kept me feeling positive and inspired when I wasn’t painting. Likewise, the schedule so unique to student life helped to keep my health pretty stable; my professors were generally supportive and my boss allowed me to choose my hours and take off when I was ill. But after graduation it was time to ‘grow up’. Art was now deemed a hobby, something that I increasingly had little time for in this new adult world. I had begun a full-time conservation internship at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and soon after was doing a day each week of paintings conservation at the Smithsonian Institute. These were meant to be my dream jobs, but a few months in I crashed. The pain was so bad that I often couldn’t get out of bed and I began missing more and more work. I felt so low and so defeated for so much of the time. I’d make art here and there, would get together with friends for some artful evenings and weekends and visit the museums in the city, but the large colorful canvases had become mementos of the past, inspiring to look at but in a way mocking.

 
 
LOCKED IN (2015)

LOCKED IN (2015)

 
 

Grad school further diminished this sense of loss. Now living in England, I once spent two whole days trudging around Northumberland in a blizzard, combing its antique shops and auction houses for the perfect painting to restore. In that entire first year, however, all I managed to create were holiday cards for my family and friends back in the US. And the amount of school that I had to miss was staggering to the point that I once again feared not being able to graduate on time. It seemed as though the deeper I got into art conservation, the further removed I felt from art. I accepted it back then with a sadness. I had stopped thinking of myself as an artist a few years earlier, back when I was an undergraduate. Instead I moved to London and continued to persevere conservation, but visa problems and a draught of work made that impossible. I was working a few jobs to make ends meet; I was at Whole Foods Market for a while, did some fine art framing in Hoxton to keep my hand skills up, worked as a jobs recruiter, and even had a brief stint in writing erotic literature during a period when my visa status prevented me from working.

About a year after moving to London, I became incredibly disheartened about conservation. I have always enjoyed the academic side of it - the ethics and the preservation of beautiful pieces of history - but somewhere along the way I lost touch with my creativity and a big part of my life was missing. Newly married to an amazing man and living in one of the best cities in the world, I still couldn’t help but feel forlorn. I was constantly ill and exhausted - by this time the endo had created chronic fatigue - and I wasn’t even happy with what I was doing with my life. Six years of school (and massive student debt) just to be working in customer service and being too sick and tired to make art in my spare time. One night in our Brixton flat, Sean and I spoke candidly about what I wanted out of life, and we continuously came back to art. Not conservation, not art history, not framing, but the act of creating (these disciplines, however, do continue to inform my work). I looked around and found the Art Academy, a progressive little place by London Bridge that offered a fine art diploma, and immediately felt at home. It was here that I learned to channel the pain I was feeling into my art. Prior to this point, the act of creating was my therapy; but at the Academy, I began to explore my penchant for abstraction. I used paint to express the searing hot colors I saw during my migraines, the guttural stabbing in my uterus, the cloud of anxiety that this all brought about. Indeed my first term project, which was about ‘Emotion’, ended up taking the form of ‘Migraines’ because they consumed me at the time. I spent day after day in bed and had nonstop endo-related bleeding that lasted for about three months. I was often absent from work and school, and missing out on this new and exciting art school life was agonizing. I had no choice but to paint through the pain. It was my assignment, yes; but it was also my therapy (and I had just used what was left of our wedding gifts to pay for school - an investment for the rest of my life, as Sean had put it, and therefore our happiness. Love him). So, with the living room darkened to keep my migraine at bay, I would paint until I was no longer thinking about my body.

 
 
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AURA (DETAILS), (2015)

AURA (DETAILS), (2015)

 
 

There were many nights like this. I remember getting a migraine the evening before I was meant to exhibit my ‘Migraines’ project, one of those days-long benders that prevented me from presenting. The same happened when I was working on an exhibition that was upcoming. I suppose the intuitive way that I work today is tied to those experiences of putting down marks before the feelings subsided and then reacting to them. It eventually became clear that the busy city life - the crazy-long work hours, the tiresome commute, the busy tube stations, the lack of nature, the way that my friends seemed to be ‘on’ all the time and thriving off the very things that were making me sick - had finally caught up with me. I burned out, and badly. Although I was making art and felt so good about that aspect of my life, I could barely function.

Sean and I set our sights on Glasgow for its urban artistic appeal, calmer environment, and proximity to nature. The moment my body had a chance to slow down - two days after the move - it collapsed. My now-suspected endometriosis became vehement and I could barely move for days on end, let alone look for work, make art, or explore my new city. Surgery confirmed endometriosis four months later, but also left me incredibly inflamed and in a lot of pain, so much that it took several months to heal. This wasn’t the case with my most recent operation - endo people, ensure you get excision surgery rather than ablation.

Because the condition continues to handicap me for over a week during my period, and also when I ovulate and at any other given time throughout my monthly cycle, I have finally decided that working as an artist full-time is what’s right for me. I’m able to call my own hours and days and can take off when I need to. I now rest and disconnect from my phone during my period without the anxiety of using up another sick day or being judged by colleagues. It is a privilege that may not be available to everyone dealing with this disorder (or any other chronic illness) and I appreciate it daily, but one of the many lessons that these past few years have taught me is how imperative it is to one’s health and wellbeing to find balance, however that may be achieved. I still am, however, struggling with this mindset. I’ve tried taking cues from Frida Kahlo, but it’s difficult to paint on the couch or in bed in the style in which I work - watery, painty puddles and silky, powdery piles of pastel. One week can soon turn into close to two if the PMS is bad that month, causing my legs to feel as though they’re made from cement, inflamed and difficult to move. In the early days after my period ends, during which most people are apparently meant to feel energized and ready to take on the world, I feel so low and exhausted after the mountains of pain I had just endured, and so disconnected from my life and my projects. I often write during this time, though I am beginning to think about other creative ways to keep happy my hands, head and heart.

Endometriosis has also taught me so much about my art and studio practice. Having multiple pieces on the go benefits both my mind and my body; I am able to get emotions out quickly on one canvas or sheet of paper and then move to the next while it dries. It also helps me to feel productive when the reality is that I often must spend close to two weeks of each month away from the studio. And, when I’m finally back in the studio again, I have a new palette of raw and deeply-felt colors and emotions to work with. I work on large canvases laid out on the floor in the early stages, using my body to move the paint around. Depending on how my body is feeling on a given day, I may be sitting on a floor cushion with the canvas on the floor or propped against the wall, or I might stand at the easel or work directly on the wall. Most days, it is a dance of all of these, moving fluidly from piece to piece. Steady movement is so vital to keeping endometriosis in check; stagnation is its enemy (indeed in Chinese medicine the condition is known as stagnation of the blood). Another way endometriosis has informed my art is in the realization of how essential nature is to my creativity. Being ill and unable to go outside is devastating to the mind. That first step outdoors once the sickness subsides, especially when living in a beautiful place, is so powerful. The crisp brightness of the light, the breeze on my skin, grass or leaves underfoot; it’s all quite shocking to the system after having been cooped up. Taking regular forest bathing trips is imperative to my practice. It both inspires me and calms any anxiety and depression. I love working out of doors when the weather permits (not so often during the long Scottish winters, but in the summer it’s light until well after 10pm). The colors, textures, the sheer quality of the air build an ever-evolving visual vocabulary with which to work.

I became reclusive for a long time, especially in the last couple of years since my diagnosis, due to both the pain and being weary of complaining about it. Now, however, I feel it’s important to talk about, to make the world aware of this awful disorder that we still know so little about including why it occurs or how to cure it. Women were excluded from clinical studies until the 1980s, which is madness. And gender bias still continues to this day, disabling us from living a normal life. It’s unfair and unacceptable. So I have decided to share more of myself - my story, my ailments, but most importantly my art. I’m not hiding anymore. Making and sharing my art has become a tool for self-care, for keeping me going, keeping me alive. I use it alongside other tools to manage my endometriosis, namely diet, yoga, meditation and yoga nidra, hiking, cannabis, and sinking myself into magnesium salt baths. It is necessary to take care of myself every single day in order to keep symptoms low and manage flare-ups, and for me painting is fundamental to this process of recovery and living. I have tried conventional approaches to life and work throughout the years and they’re not for me. For the first time in my life I feel like I am exactly where I need to be.

On that note, I thought I’d finish up with this quote from Jenny Saville:

"If there’s something feminism taught me early on, it’s that if you meet prejudice, not in the actual nuts and bolts of making art, but in terms of career, feminism allows you to use that knowledge of patriarchal systems to understand why it’s happening to you, to carry on, and not lose confidence by it.”