Our ‘A Day in the Life’ blog campaign continues with an absolutely remarkable story: an MS quadriplegic artists whose work is featured in neuroscience exhibitions across the globe, from the US to India. Meet Elizabeth Jameson, the ‘MRI Alchemist’.
I am a former human rights lawyer turned artist, using my brain scans to create art; I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis shortly after I lost the ability to speak due to an MS lesion. Though in time I regained my speech, I no longer felt comfortable practicing law. I still wanted to make an impact in society, and I unexpectedly found art. I create art using medical technology to explore what it means to live with an imperfect brain and body. I seek to expand the story of illness.
I see MRIs as the universal symbol of MS; MRIs are how the medical community tracks the progression of the disease. At first, I refused to look at the medical scans of my brain – I found them terrifying, sterile, ugly. Then I decided, instead of looking away, to look closer and to use my art to transform them.
My First Studio
I began my journey of transforming medical scans in small studio in a garage, which I shared with two other printmakers. I would take my scans and etch them onto copper plates. Through the art of the printing press, I used ink to add color to the black and white images. I was stunned when I discovered how I could use the process of printmaking to create art that captures both the clinical data of my scans and the poetry of the brain. In the studio, I felt like an alchemist, constantly experimenting.
Adjusting when change is the only constant
Over the years, my studio has had to adjust and shift, parallel to the progression of my MS. I went from a cane, to a scooter, to a wheelchair. To my surprise, both my art career and my disability progressed rapidly, making all the changes more palpable. The experience of loss coupled with the fact that my art career began to blossom kept me all the more passionate about the meaning of my work. Now I’ve lost the use of my hands, and I am a quadriplegic. My work is on display in the permanent collections of neuroscience centers and major universities in the U.S. and abroad, in countries such as England, Spain, Scotland, and India. Various organisations reached out to me to coordinate shows or to request specific work for their offices. To keep up with everything, I needed to work closely with an artist assistant. The handful of artists who have helped me over the years have not only assisted with daily studio life, but they have also inspired me and enriched my practice.
Welcome to my studio, where color and chaos converge!
Because I no longer have the use of my hands, I work with a studio assistant to create physical artwork. Currently I work with Catherine Monahon, a mixed media artist. We literally work side by side in the studio. Last year we created a series of embroideries inspired by my Diffusion Tensor Images, a neurotechnology that maps the flow of water through the brain. This is a neurotechnology that is inaccessible to most patients; my aim is to keep exploring and to make various forms of technology more accessible to the public in general.
I have also stepped into the design world, which favors the digital and is more accessible to me. I am focused on re-imagining a patient-centered waiting room, specifically in MS clinics. #FacingMS is a project of three parts:
- A display of diverse portraits of people living with MS;
- An interactive written exchange to encourage comradery in the waiting room and facilitate communication between patients and providers;
- And an outreach program to coordinate and record the unique journeys of people impacted by Multiple Sclerosis.
After 15 years of transforming on my own brain scans in hopes of expanding the narrative of illness, I have turned my attention to transforming shared spaces in hopes of re-designing the experience of living with illness. As I envision the future of #FacingMS in waiting rooms and other clinical spaces, I also work to promote my “traditional work”: etchings, textiles and multimedia artworks featuring my brain scans. Reimagined.
How does my day look like now?
My studio assistant, Catherine, arrives a few hours before me to sort through my various social media accounts and organise our day. She packages up artwork to send to various clients, prepares sketches for a project proposal, and snaps a photograph for Instagram.
I roll into the studio in my 370 lb wheelchair with my medical assistant Sheri, full of adrenaline after my morning physical therapy. The afternoon usually kicks off with a Skype meeting with an organisation we are partnered with. Catherine and Sheri hook up the webcam and my headphones so people can hear me. Loaded with coffee, we begin. Typically we meet with designers interested in transforming health care, MS organisations, or institutions in the health care system.
I accept any opportunity to use my artwork to help others in my community – patients, scientists, clinicians.
After a Skype meeting, we turn to our agenda – answering emails about upcoming conferences (I’ll be attending the Coalition for Compassionate Care of California Summit in March), researching artists and designers whose work intersects with my dream of creating patient-centered art for the waiting room, and working on a grant that will allow our vision to come to fruition.
Next, I practice a talk that I am preparing to deliver at Ted X Stanford in April. I’ll need to tell my life story, expound upon my mission in life, and deliver a call to action in just under 15 minutes. Possibly the most daunting task of my life. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and they are a nonprofit “devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks.”
Their vision centers on showcasing people who are “seek a deeper understanding of the world.” TED believes “in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.” In my talk, I’ll be speaking about my mission to spark curiosity and conversation about what it means to live in an imperfect body.