art & illness

There are several artists I’ve paid special attention to in one of my (arts-based learning) classes. I feel like Karolyn Gehrig needs to be mentioned, along with her #HospitalGlam project, because the idea behind it, of making invisible illness visible, has been something I’ve wanted to work with for a long time. Here is more on her & #HospitalGlam (http://hospitalglam.tumblr.com/)! So check that out if you’re interested! It’s an awesome project and so empowering.

However, for my major project, I’ve decided to take my inspiration from Jo Spence. She was a photographer, feminist, writer, organizer and broadcaster. In particular, I am looking at and responding to her collection Narratives of Disease (click to see her collection – NSFW/nudity warning though!).

Spence captioned the collection as such:

“How do we begin to speak about what it is like to live with cancer? How do we find a language to express ourselves? What are we able to say if we turn to the medical language of tumours, drugs, and surgical procedures: a language which is crucial to medical professionals in helping to diagnose and treat cancer but which can only speak of people as mechanical objects? Can we make use of the non medical language of bodies which is obsessed with the idealism of youth and beauty?”

I was compelled by its description alone, not to mention the piece itself. I was compelled by the photographs, by the unfolding of a story, a life, a struggle, told through only six photos with single word captions.  Her idea of not being able to express her experience with language resonated with me, and I decided I wanted to work with the themes and artistry she employed in this collection. There’s a lot to unpack in her work.

Her images really tell a story, of living with illness, and knowing, that because of the illness, she becomes an object in the medical setting. It explores the objectification of women regarding beauty standards and how illness physically marks the body and our life experience, and renders us as something completely apart from these beauty ideals.

A few things stuck with me, and translated into a focus for my artistic response, or remix project…

  • pain of illness as emotional and physical (this is a big one for me, in medical environments! no one ever checks in my mental health, just my physical symptoms and medicine dosages etc….)
  • body as a material site of struggle and resistance
  • meaning making of chronic illness through art
  • using art to describe a narrative of illness
  • physical ideals of beauty versus reality of a chronically ill body

Soon – my own narrative of disease start to emerge, from abstract concepts to the planning of the photographs I would take. The process involved a lot of questions though, questions like what words or themes are prevalent in my journey with illness? How do I express these?  How do I make sense of pain, specifically, with my diagnosis of diabetes… How do I make sense of both the physical and emotional pain that comes with it, and transform it into an act of resistance, as Spence has? Is there any way to transform it into something positive? How do I communicate what it is like to live with a chronic illness, how do I represent the complexities of my experience in a way that allows others to come to understand it as well?

This was only the start of my thought process, and now, as I finish planning for the shoot that I will be doing tomorrow…I feel like maybe I’ve found some answers. And of course, more questions. And I know the process of actually making artwork will bring new insights and maybe even more questions yet!

Already, I have felt how thinking about these ideas, thinking about my own experience of illness,  and how to turn this experience into art, has transformed the way I think. I don’t always see my necessary medical self-care as a burden, but as something worthy of art – and this has totally reframed the way I understand myself as chronically ill but also how I relate to my illness. It’s been really exciting and uplifting.

I’m not going to say much more… as I’ll probably share my collection of images when I have completed this project, but I will say that planning the shoot was a lot more than just logistics. It has been a process of finding six words that encompass my life with chronic illness. But even moreso, it has been a process, a challenging process, to figure out how to bring these emotions and experiences into being: how do I represent the complexities, all the intricacies, with one photograph? How does it go from being an idea to being a collection that is honest, authentic and vulnerable? I have rolled through every possibility time and time again in my head, and come up with what I hope will be photos that do express all of these things. I know my ideas will change and transform during the photoshoot, and that’s awesome and exciting too. I’m excited to see the results of this process, of what I will learn and how I will grow, and of course, to have the finished product and to share it with others.

I know this has been a long, rather involved post, but I thought blogging would be a good way to both reflect on this process and also tell you about it, so you have some context when I share it.

I’ll leave you with a sneak peak of what’s to come – my working title, project description and the title of each photograph as it stands right now:

Along the lines of Jo Spence’s work, Narratives of Disease, where she uses six nude photos, each titled with one word related to her journey with breast cancer, I would like to choose six emotions to tell of my experience with chronic illness, through photography. As Spence puts it, this photography is a way of challenging and expressing what it is to live with illness, in an environment saturated with medical language and objectification – both in medical settings, and as women in public spaces. I would like to address my experience with chronic illnesses as a whole, but also specifically focus in on the way diabetes marks my body, and my way of being, in ways that are often invisible to others, but brought to light through my photo series.

The series will be titled (in)Visible Illness, and will consist of six photos: submission, defeat, haunted, guilt, glorified, and finally, hope. 

Looking forward to tomorrow and sharing my work with you all 🙂

 

jc. ♥

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