Periodically, we pose questions about issues artists face in their work and lives. This month, we asked: How have health issues impacted your art – or vice versa?
Judith Klausner, multi-disciplinary artist
I think there are a variety of ways in which my experience of chronic migraines has influenced my art. Most explicitly, my recent series of work Coming Out of the Medicine Cabinet deals with the taboos, medications, and medical ephemera from all of my chronic health issues, and Migraine Mask is a migraine self-portrait.
Because many sculptural materials have fumes that are migraine triggers for me, my condition also affects what materials I can use. Sometimes the best material for a particular situation is one that is toxic to me, and I have to get creative to try to achieve a similar effect with other media.
Making art around my health has also helped to push me to talk about it more, which has in turn lead to finding a community of folks dealing with similar issues and feeling less isolated.
Finally, art gives me something I can do around the unpredictable schedule my body provides. Because the creation of art isn’t structured in such a traditional way, I can still do work that is meaningful to me even though I can’t keep a “normal” schedule.
Heather Kamins, writer
The stories I’m drawn to telling often have to do with experiences I feel are underrepresented and/or misrepresented. One such experience is that of living with a chronic illness. After being diagnosed with one as a teenager, I sought out narratives about people living with similar conditions. Mostly, I found tired tropes: too-neat story arcs about diseases that were only resolved by characters being cured (or dying, and teaching Important Life Lessons to others), or the metaphor of illness as battle. One of my goals for my work is to push back against these sorts of clichés.
The common tropes that appear in books, films, and television also filter into the stories we tell about our own health experiences and those of the people around us. Thus, it’s especially important to me that we broaden our understanding and the possibilities of how we discuss health, illness, and the body. Incorporating magic realism into my fiction about living with a serious illness has, I hope, allowed me to defamiliarize the experience of getting sick so that people can look at this kind of story with fresh eyes and better understand what the experience feels like.
Mattia Maurée, composer
My first two years of undergrad I pursued violin performance, until a car accident left me unable to play for some time. Then I started composing, so in a real way, health has shaped my entire career. I’ve joked that so many composers have chronic illnesses because they stay home and write. This humor glosses over the impact of my multiple invisible limitations (asthma, migraines, and hypermobility). It can be isolating to hear societal messaging around health and ability, and I’ve written music about my body and brain as an enemy. Some of it was private and therapeutic. Some made it into completed work: the third movement of Lightlessness – Elegy – is about my experiences with depression. Making art has helped my mental health, and given me a sense of purpose. Voice movement therapy classes mitigated some physical effects of trauma and integrated my body and voice. It’s easier to discuss this in abstract terms rather than opening up about my own experiences. However, having an emotional impact is one of the main reasons I want to share my work. Yes, things can get better; yes, making art can help; yes, being vulnerable can lead to better art.
How Have Setbacks Impacted Your Arts?
How Do You Approach Art-making during Times of Emotional Distress?
Heather Kamins’ debut YA novel, The Moth Girl, is forthcoming from Putnam. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Betwixt, Luna Station Quarterly, and elsewhere.
Judith Klausner‘s multidisciplinary art has been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston Children’s Museum, MIT Media Lab, and elsewhere. She is the author of Noah the Narwal: A Tale of Ups and Downs and the Arts and Expressions editor of My Chronic Brain, an online magazine for sufferers of chronic migraines.
Mattia Maurée is a composer who has received commissions from Emerald Necklace Conservancy, Fifth Floor Collective, Homebody Pictures, and elsewhere. Recently, they had a poem selected for display at Boston City Hall as part of the Mayor’s Poetry Program.
Image: Judith Klausner, MIGRAINE MASK (SELF PORTRAIT) (2014), clay, Swarovski crystals, metal, silk, flocking, 6x6x3.5 in.
Annelies van Dommelen says
Breast cancer 26 years ago changed everything. One phenomenon was being able to spot finish many unsolved paintings through clarity. While going through chemo a,lot of red showed up, as my body was now,changing due to amputation and chemical and radiation, my brain had to adjust to my body. I certainly became more,committed to my work and was always glad that I had this skill somewhat in the pocket.. some days I napped more than painted but I could visually paint from my fold down cot,,my head wrapped for warmth in my large coldish space. These larger paintings have a darkness to them that upon revisiting some are lightening and enlightening.
Edward Coughlin says
I study at Vocal Performance at Longy, and sing tenor. I also have Cystic Fibrosis, which makes breath control difficult and keeping my airways clear and my energy level up is also hard somethings. However, the practice and performances have kept my lungs in the best shape possible, and it motivates me to keep trying.
Gail Barbera says
I can very much relate to Judith Klausner’s story. I have a rare disease called Systemic Mastocytosis that changed my life and robbed me of things I took for granted before diagnosis almost 18 yrs ago. Usually invisible to others, it gives me bouts of intense bone pain and draining fatigue where my couch is the farthest I get for days, hives and intestinal problems cause me to hide, bewildering brain fog constantly embarrasses me and finally ended my office work life. I am healthier now in retirement with less stress and careful management, but still gingerly approach activities and friendships (it’s very difficult to be a reliable friend and commit to plans). I have though gained some positives: learned to ride the good days as enthusiastically as possible to their utmost, to take full advantage of opportunities that allow me the freedom to choose “when”, and to appreciate those who “stick” through the many inconsistent black holes in my life, lol. I love my garden and find great solace and healing in its work and beauty. Many days all I can do is sit and appreciate the sunlight on the petal colors. The glass flowers I make now celebrate that glinting light through upcycled colored and cut glass. Reimagined, intense but fragile, gathering the light, adding color, and sending it out again … Kind of like my life I guess, lol!
Robyn Thompson-Duong says
This post so resonated with me. Gail I have lupus and many of the same complaints about pain, fatigue, brain fog, and embarrassing skin issues. It also caused me to leave my corporate job and into teaching art. Now I’m finding that that is too stressful and I’m burnt out after over 10 years as a teacher in middle school. I’ve been doing my own work on the side and exhibiting occasionally in local shows. Now I am ready to make my art a priority. I keep getting sick and don’t have enough energy for teaching and creating my own work. I feel most at peace and happy in my studio. The catch is that I have to worry about health insurance and being able to afford my life.
Marion L. Carroll says
I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1988. So… goodbye to the dream of being an opera singer… no stamina, episodes of disability, progressive problems… I directed opera & G&S for a decade, until I lost the stamina for that, too.
So I’ve found other things to do. This fall will be my 17th annual Music to Cure MS concert, featuring talented local musicians putting on a fabulous concert to raise funds for the Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis:
I’m in good shape for the shape I’m in!
Laura Blacklow says
I am surprised and worried that, as I age, I find myself with less energy for the studio and less ability to pick up and carry heavy materials, like big pieces of plate glass. I am close enough with other artists near my age, and I know that I am not the only one. If you have the money, you hire a studio assistant, as Howardina Pindell described in an interview. If not, you have to figure out another way of working, I guess.