Art Talk with Ted Meyer
Ted Meyer has made art using the body as a starting point since he was a child. Meyer, who has Gaucher's disease, turned to art to help him get through long hospital stays and to express the distress he felt from the constant pain of his disease. When medical advances offered Meyer respite from his condition, he kept making art but was unsure of the direction to take. A chance meeting with a woman who had suffered a spinal cord injury led to his new direction: the Scarred for Life project. The project--which has now been ongoing for nearly two decades--comprises monoprints pulled from scars, photographs of the subject's body with the area of the scar still ink-covered, and a story of the trauma that caused the scar. As noted on Meyer's website, the prints are "a healing document for those affected by trauma." The artist expanded on this idea during our telephone interview with him, noting, "I think some people call me to be done with [the trauma] and some call to have a print done to celebrate it because either way they’re all still alive." Meyer is also the artist-in-residence at the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine, where he facilitates conversations and interactions between medical students and artists with various medical conditions. The goal of the program--which recently expanded to the USC Keck School of Medicine--is to help the students understand medicine not just from a clinical standpoint but from a human standpoint. Hear more from Meyer in the following interview about how his illness and subsequent diminishement of symptoms affected his development as an artist, why he thinks it's important for medical professions to interact with artists who are also patients, and why he thinks his subjects are drawn to participating in the project.
NEA: Can you talk about your origins as an artist?
TED MEYER: I was very sick as a child. I have Gaucher’s disease; it’s an enzyme deficiency. I spent a good portion of my childhood in and out of the hospital. I would draw in the hospital, and I just got very used to incorporating my hospital experience into my drawings even as a very young child. I would use bandages and IV tubes and things like that in drawings. So my artwork has always been about my life experience.
I want to college and I studied design. I didn’t really start painting until I had been out of college for a couple of years. I started doing all of these paintings about figurative work, usually about myself and the condition that I was in which was a lot of bone pain, severe fatigue, [and] the isolation of having to make decisions about very expensive drug usage versus the guilt of was I even worth the amount of the drugs because they were about a quarter million dollars a piece at the time. Over time it developed into a strong narrative of what it was like to be a patient.
I had some good luck. Some of the work was shown at the United Nations in a group show and it went to Japan. People seemed to understand what I was getting at. Then when I was 34, I had my hips replaced. Then when I was in my mid-forties they came up with … enzyme replacements that basically gave me a relatively normal life. There’s still some side effects and some damage that had happened pre-enzyme replacement that can’t be undone. But if you were to look at me, you’d think I was a totally healthy normal person. At that point I had a real artistic crisis because my pain was gone. My fatigue had pretty much disappeared. My shorter possible life expectancy had been lengthened. Those were all of the things that had motivated my artwork, and I was in the artistic wilderness for a while.
I met a woman at an art opening and we had a long conversation about what do you do when your circumstances change? She had gone from being a dancer to being paralyzed, but she still kept working doing choreography with a dance company. She said to me, “If I can keep dancing you can keep painting.” So I thought of different ways to bring my artwork back into the medical world. I thought maybe I could do a print of her back and tell her story. Soon as I showed this artwork it was very apparent that everybody who had a major scar wanted me to tell their story. People kept volunteering for me to do their prints and everybody wanted to tell me their story…. They would pull down their pants and pull up a shirt and unbutton things so that I could visually see what had happened to them. And it became very clear that there was something about this work that really touched people in a way that my paintings had never touched them.
NEA: You just said that you wanted to find a way to keep your art practice in the medical world. Why was that important for you?
MEYER: I went from doing this very personal work that showed a lot of tension and a lot of frustration to a several year period where I did very beautiful paintings about people in love and everything was happy and the colors were bright. As I got healthier, my color palette changed. Everything become more vivid with more reds as opposed to lots of browns and blacks. But I really felt that even if I was doing beautiful paintings that people appreciated and wanted to put over their couch, I wasn’t making a statement. [Growing up] I was always told that I would not live very long. When somebody comes to you and says, “Okay, you’ve got new medicine and now you’ve got an extra 20 or 30 years,” as opposed to going, “Great, now I’m going to just have fun,” I really felt a need to do something with that that made some sort of statement about the world. By that time I was tired of talking about myself artistically and I wanted to talk about other people because I do have this ease of talking to other people about their medical situations. It seemed like an easy jump to start doing work about other people.
NEA: When you were making work about your own health, did that change your relationship with your body?
MEYER: I won’t say it changed it but it made it easier for people to see what I was going through. When I was younger, I was grumpier. I was angrier. I was tired all of the time. I was less engaged with other people because I really was focused on my own health. The artwork really showed that. My early artwork is all single figure in a canvas, very isolated, dark colors. They were angry-looking or they were sort of contorted bodies. Immediately as soon as I had the hip replacement and then within a year started on the enzyme replacement, everything changed. Bones take forever to regenerate, but within about three or four months the fatigue that I had had that made it so that I could fall asleep literally anywhere at any time lifted. It was an amazing transformation to just feel like “Oh, I can go out. I don’t need to sleep.” It became very apparent in my paintings. All of a sudden there were additional figures, and they weren’t skeletons. They had skin on them and they were interacting and they were very sensual looking and they were having sex and they were looking at each other and there were brighter colors. It was almost an immediate thing as soon as my body got better that I didn’t think about at all as I was doing them. It really wasn’t until a few years later when I had been asked to give a talk at an artist group where I put all of my work in chronological order and as [I was] doing the talk, it became really apparent to me as I was [looking at the work] right here I had a hip replacement and right here I started medicine. Then I would look at the next slide and it was vastly different from the one before. It wasn’t at all something where I made a conscious decision like okay now, I’m going to start telling a different story. It just happened that way.
NEA: To go back to the Scarred for Life project, what is your artistic goal for the project? Also, what do you think it is that makes people want to share those wounds?
MEYER: The project has transformed a little bit. When I first started it, it was just the print and a title like “Broken Back” with the name of the vertebrae…. It was originally the idea of making a beautiful print that had a nice texture to it, a nice color. I would go in detail around the scars to add a little emphasis to what was happening on the skin with the scar. They looked like very nice sort of Japanese prints with an abstract pattern in them. That was my goal; I just wanted to make something beautiful out of them. But within the first one or two shows I had of this work, it became really clear people wanted to know how the person was. So I added photos. They wanted to know their stories, so I added the stories. Within about six or seven months of showing the first print it had evolved much more to what it is now. Over the last ten years I’ve [changed] from just doing a beautiful color field pattern to trying to add a lot of details about what happened to the person in the accident. Did they get run over by a car? Is there a narrative that I can paint into the print without hitting someone over the head with an illustration?
What I think is going on is that most people have pretty easy lives in this country, at least medically, until something bad happens like… they get hit by a car or something…. A lot of times people will go through something that could take them years of rehab or adapting to this new life, and there’s never an actual point where they can celebrate it and say, “I’m done with it. I’m done mentally with it or I’m done physically with it.” But they come to me and it's like a little celebration. Like we’re going to make this scar into a piece of art today and maybe they move on from it. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that doing the print finishes the process for them of healing. They’re ready to have someone touch [the scar]. They’re ready to have someone see it because a lot of times people don’t let [other] people see or touch the scars afterwards. There’s just something about where it fits in the healing process. Some people call me before they have an operation and they say, “As soon as this thing is healed up and it's safe to put ink on it, I want you to do a print to commemorate it.” And some people wait three or four years and call me up and say, “No one’s touched this but I’m ready to put it behind me.” I think some people call me to be done with it and some call to have a print done to celebrate it because either way they’re all still alive.
NEA: Can you walk me through what’s involved in making the work from finding the subject to the actual mechanics of it all?
MEYER: With a few exceptions—because I did a couple of veterans that I had to go out and find—basically, everybody volunteers. I get emails from people all over the world saying, “When I’m in L.A. can we do a print?” Or someone knows somebody and says, “My friend had this horrible accident or operation or something and they’ve got scars all over them.” So I usually don’t approach people because it’s a personal thing and some people are ready to talk about it and some aren’t. When I first started, I went up to one or two people who I saw with bad scars and they were not comfortable with me approaching them so since then that’s seventeen years of people just finding me and offering up their scars and their stories.
We set up a time in the studio and they come in and we usually sit and talk for about a half hour first and I get their story so I have content to work into the artwork. It makes both of us feel more comfortable because the person is going to be taking off their shirt or their pants or their dress or whatever. I put ink on them and I pull monoprints off their bodies and the prints dry for a couple of days. That gives me some time to think about what sort of imagery I want to put in them. While [the sitters] have the ink on them I photograph them because I want people to be able to look at their portraits and see where the scar is on the body. It also, I think, separates me from some other scar projects because there are a few others that are based on veterans or women who have had mastectomies. But I really don’t want to show the damage to the body as much as a lot of these other scar projects. They’re very graphic, and to me some of them are very shocking because you see the people with all of their scars in full bloom, whereas mine, they have ink over them. So you see the area without seeing the actual damage done to the body…. I’m sure that the people who do theirs get the same fulfilment from posing for them as people do mine so I’m not negating those at all. But in my case I didn’t really want to focus on the body.
When I talk to these people I think of them sort of like me, where I had one life going into the period where I got the new medication, and then I have a whole new life afterwards. So it’s all about how do you navigate your new life after a big scar, a big operation, or whatever? I think that’s one reason this project really appeals to me is I get to hear everybody’s stories. And although all of the stories will start out, “It was December of 1987 and I was in a car,” or “I had my heart taken out and replaced, and a new heart put in,” I really have the people focus on their survival from the point of the incision into their body. I really want to hear how did they survive? How did they reorganize their life? How did they come to terms with everything that had happened to them because that’s my story?
NEA: What do you hope that the viewers coming to this work are taking from it?
MEYER: That they have some compassion. And also the fact that people should not take their life so for granted. So many of the people I have in this collection are relatively young people that have been through major things…. I have people that have new lungs because they smoked and livers because they over drank and people that were in car accidents because someone wasn’t paying attention and hit them on their motorcycle or maybe they were drunk and hit a telephone pole or something. I’m hoping people will appreciate their lives a little more but also see what other people go though. There’s always that thing where your friend gets in a car accident or your friend has an operation or someone dies and for the next two weeks they get a lot of attention and everybody checks on them. After a few weeks everyone’s forgotten. I’ve heard several times when people have gone through this or someone has died in an accident and they go, “The first two weeks are easy. It’s after that when everyone stops calling then it’s hard.” I want people to see that for some of these people it’s a lifelong struggle after an operation or a lifelong re-adapting to a new life. So when they read the stories they can see that some of these people’s struggles have gone on for 20 or 30 years before they had to have an operation or after they had an operation.
NEA: You also have an association with UCLA in terms of facilitating interactions between artists and medical students. How did that come about?
MEYER: I had planned to be dead by thirty and then all of a sudden, I wasn’t going to be. I had to start a retirement account. Have a girlfriend. Put a career together. My life plan had been to really have a lot of fun and travel and die. That changed and all of a sudden here I am at 58 doing artwork that's going around the world and showing in museums because I was sick. That narrative is what led me to the artist in residence position at UCLA because I started hearing all of these stories. And as a result I would also meet other artists because everybody said, “Oh, do you know this person? He does art work about cystic fibrosis. Do you know this woman? She has MS. She does artwork about it.”
So I approached UCLA and said, “I have all of these artists that have a really valuable patient experience that is enhanced by the fact that they are sick because they would not have done the artwork they do had they not been sick.” After a little back and forth with the assistant dean of education of education, they decided to give me the gallery of the medical school building at UCLA. They gave me the lobby to put a gallery up in there and I started bringing in artists whose artwork corresponded to what the med students were studying that quarter at the medical school. So I brought in a woman with migraines that did artwork about it. I brought in a woman who is a germophobe. I brought in a woman with MS. I did a whole show on artists that have cancer. The idea was that they would then give a talk to the medical students and talk not just about what things doctors had done right or wrong treating them, although that’s part of it, but they would talk about the life of the patient and how it motivates them to be an artist. All of the medical schools now have to have a humanism component to their curriculum so I was helping fulfill all of that at UCLA.
NEA: What do you think is the value of having artists in conversation with medical professionals, particularly students who aren’t yet out in the field?
MEYER: Within a medical school students learned lots of procedures and they learn lots of “look for this enzyme level,” “check for this blood count,” “make sure the spleen is not enlarged,” all of the technical things. But they really were not taught to look at the people as whole human beings. The whole bedside manner thing was really something either you learned or you didn’t learn on your own because you were a good person. I know from my years and years and years of being in and out of hospitals there are some doctors that are wonderful and some that are really, really horrible as far as relating to you. The ones that were bad at relating really only looked at the symptoms; they clearly didn’t see their patients as people…. We did a talk by an artist who has cystic fibrosis and he came in with his oxygen tank. You know, at that point I think he had something like seventeen percent oxygen exchange in his lung. You could have heard a pin drop while he was talking about what it’s like to be on a waiting list and knowing that you are really, really sick but you’re not sick enough to be on the top of the list. He does this really wonderful artwork about… waiting for these new lungs. There’s something about hearing “I am within inches of death and I’m making artwork about it because that’s my way of dealing with it, and I want to tell my story.” It’s much stronger than just reading [about cystic fibrosis] in a textbook.
For another perspective on the intersection of art and medicine, listen to our podcast interview with poet and medical doctor Rafael Campo.