Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Pain: An Artistic Experience

About eight months ago, I posted a little musing on Facebook in which I wondered if maybe I should curate a show about pain. Several artists on my friends list responded, which surprised me, and illustrator/board director of A/NT Gallery in Seattle, Aubry Andersen, mentioned that maybe that would make a good show at A/NT for August. Thus, "Pain: An Artistic Experience" was born.

But I would like to go back a little further to the actual inspiration for the show, to "Pain" itself, to my own journey. I wish I could say something like: I fell down and broke my elbow and couldn't paint for a month, or even My grandfather died and I realized that we would never enjoy our company together again in this reality. While those are real experiences of pain, they also allow for a fade of that initial shock and bruise of the experience of pain. You remember the feeling but it only hits as a memory. You can gain a little ground on it. How you deal with the memory, well that's up to you.

My journey is kind of like walking a lifetime on a rocky path with no shoes and no time to grow callouses. As a toddler, I made the pivotal choice of climbing up on a windowsill of my room to enjoy the envious view of children outside playing near a tree. I leaned on the screen of the open window, which gave way and fluttered down two stories below. I tumbled out and to the ground, landing on my head and bouncing down a small hill. Due to freshly laid bark that acted as a rough pillow, I survived, but not without injury invisible to the naked eye but very much there.

"Invisible to the Naked Eye" has been a haunt for me, for on the outside I look healthy, even vibrant at times. I have strong arms and legs, intelligence (of a sort), and I've always looked much younger than my physical age. But thanks to our probing technology, to MRIs and CT scans, to blood tests and x-rays, a different picture emerges. The column of bone called the spine is twisted and uneven, the tissue surrounding it knotted and wrapped around it in irregular but stabilizing ways, the skull capping the top cocked permanently to the right. The spongy disks are thinner, overworked, bulging inwards. Nerve branches are rubbed thin by muscles and ligaments in a constant state of spasm. And inside the brain, small lesions formed by the impact of that initial fall are scarred and float like tiny pieces of rice, with neurons overlapped around them in the attempt to repair and make do. I'll never know what exactly I lost and made do inside the brain, with the exception of an annoying case of face blindness that I developed after another brain injury later in life.

I've lived in the Naked Eye of the Inner Atheist - if you can't see it, you don't believe it. My outward symptoms of blinding headaches, moodiness, occasional awkward clumsiness, strange seizures and the overall feeling of pain and fatigue were consistently questioned by judging eyes. I was diagnosed with everything from mental illness, migraines, epilepsy, overactive ovaries, to tension headaches and fibromyalgia. I was put on every medication under the sun (it felt like) with little positive result. I was accused of faking my symptoms, of just being needy for attention. I was accused of being lazy and avoidant. At one point, I wondered if I was just crazy: after all my umpteenth therapist certainly suggested that I was suffering under severe anxiety and my night terrors were getting worse. My dad, however, confided to me that he really felt the source of my lifetime of symptoms rested on that one fall, despite our family pediatrician claiming I was "fine" when I was rushed to his office after the incident. So, on a hunch, I demanded an x-ray. My neurologist laughed at me and refused to request one, because migraines don't show up on x-rays, and my problem was migraines, period. My new chiropractor, however, was more than happy to submit. I was 23 years old at this time. I had never had an x-ray of my spine. This was a the first step in my rocky path to Redemption.

It's been 21 years since that x-ray, and this whole process of disproving the Inner Atheist has been like peeling an onion. Meanwhile, I've had to deal with the pain of a continually deteriorating body, with the physical pain that is sometimes crippling, with the medications that often have unpleasant side effects, with the surgeries and procedures to fix the broken column that continues to crumble anyway, with the autoimmune disease that destroyed my adrenal glands (probably due to my body on constant alert and recover mode). But mostly, I have had to deal with the constant judgement of others, the Naked Eye Atheists, like the one therapist who told me I was bipolar (because he does not understand chronic pain behavior, nor did he bother to learn about it), or the doctor who refused to treat me with a hydrocortisone/saline solution at the ER because he "didn't believe in Addison's Disease" (the adrenal disease I have), despite having been tested positive again and again. Or worse, my friends and family who don't understand how I can hide my symptoms when I need to, like when I have to work or want to do something I love despite the pain. I'm a wonderfully good actress - I learned this so I could fit in as a kid, so I wasn't stuck in the nurse's office three days a week by myself, the freaky kid with the stupid headaches. You see, I love life and everything it has to offer. I don't have time to suffer in bed, alone with my tortured thoughts, cut off.

To me, pain is a test. It tests my courage, my resolve, my love, my sanity. It tests my connection to my loved ones, my strength in handling the doubting atheists, my need to enjoy the minutes I have on this earth. With every step on the path, every sharply pointed rock my foot rests upon, however briefly, I refuse to stop. For me, creating artwork was a place of solace, I could channel my energy and connect with the core of myself that understands the testing of the human experience and overcomes it. It's a place of understanding for me. It's a testament to walking the path. Others may walk paths of cotton or glass, and I encourage everyone to testify to their experience, no matter how smooth or shattered the path may be. I'm glad there are artists, musicians, writers, who are able to narrate and give life to their experience so I can vicariously imagine their pain, their joy, and connect to other human beings in a way the Naked Eye is not able. To it all, I laugh. I laugh a lot.

The artwork in this show is a testament to the experiences of these artists. Some of them are very comfortable in expressing their own pain. Some of them appear to confront pain in a more abstract light. There are pieces that radiate agony of the heart and soul, and a few pieces that ebb away in a moroseness of depression that some of us unfortunately suffer daily. This isn't an easy exhibition to experience, but in the same vein, it's very refreshing and real. You will read statements from various artists as to their inspiration for their pieces that will only add weight and validity to their condition, much like an x-ray.

I am sure someone will whisper to their friend, upon seeing this exhibit, "God, this is so depressing! How awful! Why would anyone want to make this stuff?"

I'll just laugh.

~Julie Baroh, September 2014

"Pain: An Artistic Experience" will be open from September 13th - October 3rd 2014 at Krab Jab Studio, with the artist reception September 13th, 6 - 9 pm and a Curator Talk at 7:30 pm.

This exhibit is selected works from the original show of the same name at A/NT Gallery, August 2014. Works were selected by curators Julie Baroh, Aubry Andersen (of A/NT Gallery) and Braden Duncan (independent curator and founder of Seattle Arts Coalition).