This weeks blog is a bit of a personal one that introduces a subject that I’ve not shared before. I have hesitated to write about this because I try to detach this issue from my professional life. That being said, it is very much entwined in my professional life and is proving to be an important aspect of my artistic journey. I think it’s a subject many creatives shy away from, but maybe not for the right reasons. Here it goes…
When I was 18 I was diagnosed with seronegative arthritis. At first I would have swelling around my knee caps and in my hips, which when at its most severe caused me to rely on crutches for daily activities or had me bedridden entirely. 18 months or so after I began using crutches daily, the pain and swelling spread to my hands and fingers. All my blood tests from that day to this came back as negative, thus the seronegative type diagnosis. I used to have good days and bad days, which only added to the frustration because at times I would almost convince myself it was all in my head…until the pain struck to a level that I could no longer ignore. I’ve had deep needle injections underneath my knee caps, radio-active bone scans, and I’ve tried more pills than I care to recount. Over the years I have learned to manage my condition. I dropped out of my theatre course (too much dancing) and started studying Animal Science. My studies opened the door to beautiful friendships and even lead me to travel and eventually to complete my MSc. Most importantly I gradually learned to accept my limitations (which was near impossible to do as a teenager). I typed all of my three-hour written exams at uni as this was easier than holding a pencil for the duration, and I pace myself with daily physical activities now. As such, my crutches are happily collecting dust in a cupboard. I have accepted that I can take up opportunities at a small price. I have learned that I can sometimes dance until sunrise at a festival, but I will spend the next day and night draining swelling from my legs whilst my friends continue the party. I even learned that I can explore the tough terrain of the Mexico-Guatemala jungles; but the price would be asking people I’d only just met to inject me in the butt with steroids to bring down the swelling in all my joints. Not ideal, but it did make for one hell of a story! And I did it. I live and I get on with it. So why do I hesitate to share this rather than see it as a matter of achievement?
The main reason I haven’t shared my condition on my blog is because I don’t want what my bones may or may not be afflicted with to be some kind of defining identity to my artwork. I want my work to represent itself. Yet it did get me thinking. It got me thinking about the physical strain that many artists endure for their work. Whether it’s headaches from eyestrain, repetitive strain injury, or diagnosed disability, I think the physical determination of artists often goes unspoken. Since posting a comment on one of my instagram posts about my arthritis stopping me working for the day, I’ve had many messages from artists claiming they also suffer flair ups of carpal tunnel, fibromyalgia, and repetitive strain. Yet I’ve not seen a single post by these artists that give any such insight into the physical hurdles of their artistic life. Which brings me onto the second reason I haven’t shared my condition here before. I’ve become institutionalised to hiding it.
I don’t think I’ve ever actively admitted to past employers the extent of basic daily activities (such as prolonged standing or working in cold weather) on my physical health. Not until it was too obvious to hide. I wonder how many other creatives hide their physical or psychological health problems with their audience? Why do I feel the need to come up with any other reason for struggling to meet a client’s deadline? Because I’ve been trained that admitting the truth will lose me my job. That’s outrageous! I believe that creative entrepreneurs and artists of all mediums should be hailed for their commitment to creating beauty in this world, especially those who physically strive to create their final masterpiece.
Until I found my artistic ability, I was frustrated and angry with myself that I was not working directly with animals as I had hoped. Having worked as an animal keeper in many different capacities (farm, zoo, sanctuary settings), I know the level of physical fitness required. Yet it has only been very recently that I have accepted that it isn’t beneficial to my health to pursue a physically challenging full time career. I can however share my emotional connection with animals through my art. I can inspire someone to see the beauty and individuality in the face of an aged elephant. I can depict the relationships and life journey of a sea turtle on its migration route, and that is my gift to the world. No it’s not changing the world, but it’s changing mine. My artwork allows me to express myself and how I see the world whilst managing my health. Still, the most frustrating thing is to refrain from working on a piece because I need to rest my hands. It’s upsetting to know that if I make good progress on a piece today, the chances are I’ll have to pay for it tomorrow with swelling and even the inability to carry on working. I have to take care with sanding wood as the vibrations of the electric sander can trigger pain; and I have to pace myself with creating pointillism artwork. It’s also something I have to consider when doing large shows where I can’t sit down for hours, and where I have to lug my woodwork from the car to the stand and back again. It’s frustrating that it takes me longer than I’d like to complete large works, but each dot represents that determination to create it. It is, after all, part of my journey.
In a way I wish more artists were open with their health. It is personal, but so is the work you are creating. Your gift to the universe is your vision, whether it’s abstract, contemporary, classical, or experimental. Artists pour their vision, their soul, their time and money and countless trial and errors into their work. It seems a shame to hide the physical struggles many encounter when creating art, for it is often those that make it such a personal achievement in the long run. People often say to me that I must have a lot of patience to make pointillism artwork. They are right, but not in the way that they think.
If you take anything away from reading this, let it be an appreciation for the level of physical determination many artists inject into their work. They don’t often admit it, but it’s there.
Video: Time-lapse of my attempt to carry on with my pointillism pyrography whilst suffering from repetitive strain and a mild flare up of arthritis.