We all are impacted by illness and disability: the imperfect brain and body as a work of art

Elizabeth Jameson
Posted May 10, 2017
Etchings of my imperfect brain scans
Emerging
Emerging: Emerging is one of my most spiritual images. I see my imperfect brain emerging out into the sunrise. (1/8)

I am a former lawyer and now an artist, and I transform my brain scans in the hopes of celebrating what it means to live in an imperfect body, with an imperfect brain.

I’m a quadriplegic, and I want to create safe spaces for people to share their own unique stories about illness and disability. People with brain tumors, ALS, MS, Bipolar Disorder, traumatic brain injury, paralysis, missing limbs … everyone has a story. People from all over the world have reached out to me when they see my work. It is my hope that by putting medical data back into the hands of the “patient” (aka the person), we can bring these conversations back into our homes, back to the dinner table, back into our daily lives. Rather than be the “other,” we want to be part of the crowd, acknowledged and celebrated for who we are. Sometimes I feel like a minister running a confessional after I give a talk about my work and people line up to tell me their stories. People are aching to talk about illness and disability. They crowd around me, sometimes forming a line (an awkward phenomena of living life in a power wheelchair), telling the story of their daughter, father, best friend, or themselves. Their scans. Their traumas. Their struggles.

I have not always been focused on using art to re-contextualize illness and disability. My life path changed when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. It all began with the loss of my ability to communicate verbally. I was in the park with my husband, pushing our two sons on the swings, and I experienced an aphasic episode, meaning I couldn’t communicate verbally at all. After many tests, including Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs), and a brain biopsy, I was diagnosed with MS. My voice and language skills came back, it was not like before. I had trouble word-finding, and I no longer felt comfortable practicing law, my chosen profession.

I was left with my brain scans – the MRIs -- black and white images of my brain that represented something I wanted to run far, far away from. I refused to look at them, but the images were tattooed on my forehead. I couldn’t escape them.

I was thrown into an existential crisis. I had loved being a lawyer. Unsure of what to do with my life, I discovered art. I had never owned a paintbrush, I had never cared about art. But, as a neuroscientist guessed, perhaps the lesions that had weakened my language encouraged new pathways to form in my visual, spatial regions. Who knows for sure, but I took to art like a moth to a flame.

I started out painting flowers, still life and portraiture. But I grew bored of it. What good was I doing the world? What was the point? I had been a public interest lawyer before all of this, advocating for disenfranchised children, fighting for their right to necessary healthcare, working in prisons and hospitals. I was intent on changing the world. Now, directionless, I needed my work to help other people. I needed my artwork to mean something.

The idea came to me in my studio, triggered by the pile of black and white brain scans that had haunted me for so many months. I had to return to what I had been avoiding. I felt it was my duty to transform this medical imagery, reclaim it from the hands of the medical community and make it my own, something that truly could be a part of me, something I could stare directly at – not with fear, but with fascination.

I went to work.

Through a process called photo-etching, I transferred my MRIs onto copper plates that I then covered in ink and ran through a printing press. The process of printmaking allowed me to make multiple copies of the same images, experimenting with color and mixed media. I began to collage my medical documents into some of my work. Work that started out as autobiographical became universal, when at my first opening I was approached by people who were living with ALS, and a person who had undergone a stroke. They related to my images. I was no longer creating to transform my brain scans: I was creating to transform what it means to have a brain that is diseased, different, and imperfect. Everyone knows someone with illness, if they themselves haven’t been impacted by it. Disability is everywhere, and inevitable. We are all imperfect – all human. As my disease progressed, I went from living with an invisible illness to having a very visible disability. I am now a quadriplegic, without the use of my hands or legs.

I am extremely privileged to live the life I lead, to have access to a wheelchair and technology that allows me to use a computer and connect to the world outside of my room. It is my hope that my artwork can open conversation, serve as a point of advocacy and awareness for those across the world who do not have the access to the healthcare they need, the conversations they crave, and the social support that is necessary to thrive in an imperfect body. This is something we will all face; we are all in it together.

How to Get Involved

Visit www.jamesonfineart.com to learn more.

Read stories of people living with MS at www.facingms.org

This post was submitted in response to Art for Change.

Comments 6

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Sherna Alexander Benjamin
May 10, 2017
May 10, 2017

Dear Elizabeth Jameson,

Your story is captivating and filled with hope, thank you for sharing and I look forward to reading many more of your journal post. Let me welcome you to World Pulse. You have joined a community which encourages and supports women from across the globe giving us a space to share our stories, use our voices and connect and network with a diverse group of individuals.

Thank you for joining the community and I look forward to interacting with you.

JulieG
May 10, 2017
May 10, 2017

Dear Elizabeth,

Your art is incredibly beautiful and I hope you can reach many, as there are conversations to be started by these stories and images.  Welcome to World Pulse and thank you for sharing your story and creations with us.  I look forward to seeing more from you.

TechMktr71
May 16, 2017
May 16, 2017

Hi Elizabeth - Thank you for so eloquently and openly sharing your story!  I too was diagnosed to be in early stages of MS within the last year and have suffered some speech and memory impairment which can be very frustrating.  The way that you turned your diagnosis into an opportunity to give back to others is very inspiring to me as I have been a creative manager in the technology industry for decades.  It was a story that I needed to hear and at just the right time.  Keep it up!  I hope to be reading more from you in the future.

Respectfully,

Melissa

Elizabeth Jameson
May 17, 2017
May 17, 2017

Melissa,

I would love to know more about you. Especially what speech problems you have had. We're part of a sisterhood of MSers with speech problems! I live in San Francisco. Where are you? Let's keep talking.

Elizabeth

Susana Khabbaz
Jun 07, 2017
Jun 07, 2017

Hello beautiful human being...

I just run into your post..., Your art is AMAZING!!!! I love it..., I'm speechless... congratulations from the bottom of my heart!

Susana Khabbaz.

zionorganization
Jun 14, 2017
Jun 14, 2017

Great working you are doing there, may God grant you more strength.