How an Incurable Disease Transformed my Art

Something isn't right. I can feel it. I'm doubled over in pain in the back seat of my sister's car. She gets me Bojangles--comfort food.

I remember seeing the bland walls of a hospital, the shuffling scrubs of the nurses, and the wrinkled face of the man that would change my life forever. Peering at me through big smudged glasses he asked me if I knew what Crohn’s disease was. I said, “no”.

 My early still life drawings. Boy did I love graphite pencil. Nothing more satisfying the shading the crap out of those apples.

My early still life drawings. Boy did I love graphite pencil. Nothing more satisfying the shading the crap out of those apples.

My life was pretty simple before that night in November. I was healthy, did well in school, and I didn’t have a care in the world. I started drawing when I was really young. Over the years, I was taught the basics of realism and how to perfectly recreate a picture or a still life. Those years were good for me because I was able to focus on improving my skills. But that’s all that I was focusing on. I was producing surface level work that made me happy. Why wouldn't it? I thought all there was to art was creating something beautiful. And I was good at it.

After high school I was headed to UNCC to pursue a BFA in Illustration. I had a big head and was ready to wow my professors with all my art skillzzzz. My first couple of classes were centered around the foundations of drawing. I was set to have a killer semester.

 This is a very blurry and painfully real photo of me during my week-long hospital stay.

This is a very blurry and painfully real photo of me during my week-long hospital stay.

But like all good stories, my life wouldn’t stay easy and carefree.

Fast forward to the feeling of knives in my stomach and my mom carting me to the ER. In an instant my life became a lot harder with lots of unanswered questions and soul searching.  

Bringing it back to the old guy that broke the bad news to me-- he started explaining to me what Crohn’s disease is and what to expect. I learned that my immune system attacks both good and bad bacteria in my small intestine and would produce painful side effects like abscesses and fistulas.  He told me that most likely these side effects would mean multiple surgeries. But as he went over my diagnosis the only word I heard was “incurable”.

 This is where I began to stretch the boundaries of what I considered to be realistic. Really getting crazy here.

This is where I began to stretch the boundaries of what I considered to be realistic. Really getting crazy here.

The next several years of college were met with feelings of depression, anxiety, confusion, and loneliness. The joy I got from drawing a still life had disappeared. The emotions I was wrestling with didn’t match what I was putting on canvas. I simply had no motivation or vision for where I wanted my life to go. I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I didn't understand why the fulfillment I used to get from art had disappeared.

I began to experiment with technique that strayed from my typical realistic style. The joy I found in experimentation came and went. Although I altered my technique, my subject matter still didn’t mimic the intense pain I was in. My life had culminated to such a devastating climax, and yet my art only depicted happy animals.

Not until my last semester of senior year did I discover the possibilities of abstraction. I took a printmaking class where my professors encouraged me to completely let go, experiment with technique, and focus on the process rather than the outcome.

For the first time I wasn’t focused on how to make the prettiest picture.

My world was opened to the capacity in which I could express my feelings. I was able to scream with anger, jump with joy, & wallow in sadness all because of how the paint spoke on the canvas. I didn't have to worry about exact measurements or the perfect hue. I just painted.

 Ahhh, my first taste of true abstract experimentation. 

Ahhh, my first taste of true abstract experimentation. 

My art came to life because it was expressing the deep emotions of living with an incurable disease. Abstraction helped me work through the magnitude of what I was dealing with. Getting Crohn’s rocked me to my core. But through painting, I came to grips with why I had to deal with all the pain. Crohn’s jolted me from a rather easy existence into life of constant struggle. And it’s through that struggle that I’ve learned to open up and be honest about a subject that before I was too afraid to even talk about.  Crohn’s has given me a new perspective on art and why and how I create it.