April 21, 2015

“You should get over and see that exhibit.”

With that bit of advice from my mother and a sense my own doctor/mother/homemaker horizons were at times rather limited, I hop on my bicycle and ride the short distance to the St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre. My family has been very involved in the centre’s evolution from a historic, but deteriorating, former Trappist monastery to its present state.

Beyond the example of being financially supportive, I was raised to believe a regular dose of the arts is important, essential even, for one’s well-being. Along with the active encounter of a work of art, whether a book, visual art, music or drama, there can also be the most profound of experiences in healing and personal growth. Art translates pain into a product that exorcises the creator’s suffering and allows the viewer access to his or her own most protected vulnerabilities. I anticipate receiving the “treatment” an artist and their work has to offer, although its ways and means are not necessarily apparent beforehand.

I enter the gallery and encounter six television screens in a semicircle. Each screen is staged as though in a forest and displays an audio-video loop of a body or a body part. From a distance the combined soundtracks are unintelligible. The effect is like walking into dense forest where every insect, leaf and animal is intent on emitting its own life-sound. There is a rapid shift, however, when the viewer moves into this woodland and the images and voices become more distinct. On one television, a woman is writhing and moaning on a bed of leaves. On another, her face fills the screen and relates a convoluted story of being attacked. On one a mouth repeats endless syllables, on another a stick enters a vagina. On the farthest and largest screen the camera tracks a woman as she flees through a forest within this forest, glancing back at intervals with an expression of panic.

It is too much and I have to leave this part of the exhibit. Art can overwhelm even as it can enlighten, more so when intensity outstrips comprehension. The message of control of a woman’s body in its interface between the natural and man-made (non-inclusive term used intentionally) was clearly conveyed, but my own journey through it as a viewer was limited by the sheer ferocity of the images.

Luckily, just then my sister, Louise May, arrives. She curated the exhibit and explained that the artist, Wendy Geller, was from Winnipeg and lived much of her artistic life in New York state. The video/rocks/trees exhibit I had just escaped was titled Natural History: Case Studies and, as I had surmised, reflected her involvement with gender politics, the relationship between humans and the natural world, and performance art.

Shortly after completing this work, Geller was taken to an emergency room with an unbearable headache. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and operated on within days. The initial prognosis was she had just three months to live, but she went lived and produced art for another two years. This exhibit, Wendy Geller: That which cannot be contained, is the first since her death in 1996.

Louise and I move to a series of irregularly-shaped articles arranged along a shelf on the south side of the gallery. Each object has a kind of innocence and complexity about it, and is wrapped – variably – in string, coloured thread, rope or fishing line. Geller named them schwabties, gatherings of rocks, shells, buttons and beads, leaves, pieces of fabric and yarn and much more; each was a collection unto itself as well as a part of the larger collection of life. Each possesses a sense of the holy, a means of sustenance in what must have been a time of desolation for Geller and for those around her. They remind me of my children’s collections of “special things,” the precious – usually found ­– items that give their small lives a sense of belonging, of time and of connectedness.

As I move along the shelf of schwabties, I think about the rupture with her former life Ms Geller’s diagnosis must have caused. She was thirty-seven when she fell ill. I wonder if her surgeons and oncologists appreciated her perceptions of power and autonomy.

How did she cope with the confines of hospitalization? Was she compliant – surely a description she would have despised – or was she a difficult patient? Did she have health insurance?

As we tour the remainder of the exhibit, I marvel at Geller’s juxtaposition of these forces: fear and calm, rejection and acceptance, lively exuberance and annihilation. A series of pages extracted from an ancient medical textbook have been ingeniously, and tellingly, altered by Geller. My guess is they are from an old Williams’ Obstetrics. Possibly a turn-of-the-century anatomy book. Cross-sections of female, gravid bodies metamorphose into an iris of O’Keeffian sensuality; in another into an arching trout. A term fetus in a disembodied pelvis becomes a spider, perfectly centred in her web.

In a much different way from the first installation, they tell of the connection between the matter and the substance of our bodies and of the Earth. A connection often disregarded, not just in the medical world, but in the hurried, consumer-driven one.

For me, the most powerful message of the display is the reminder of the life lived outside the emergency room, the CT scanner, the medical encounter. Of course I hope I am sensitive to these considerations, yet I think of the many superficial contacts a physician has with people through his or her profession; encounters that could easily miss the vibrancy, the brilliant rebelliousness and the resilience of one such as Geller.

The final section of the exhibit is a series of oil stick drawings. They were the therapeutic visualizations Ms Geller did in the initial healing phase after her diagnosis and surgery. The meditative representations of teeth, bones and stylized internal organs are portrayed in bold colours and simple shapes. The release of tension, sense of control, even the stimulation of her much-needed immune system are apparent. I am reminded that regardless of the form of a patient’s therapy, achieving comfort and control are the ultimate goals. If these sketches were her medicine, so be it.

Louise draws my attention to one final painting as we head towards the exit. “This is the last thing she did,” Louise says. “The paint was still on her fingers when she lay down on the bed they’d set up in her studio.”

It is one of the modified medical textbook pages, still recognizably a diagram of the human skeleton but transformed into a fully fleshed person who appears to be changing into a bird. A raven, possibly, prophetic and remote. It is a fitting end to a wonderful exhibit, asking, as these experiences do, as many questions as it answers. And reminding, as art does, of the spiritual nourishment and healing power of the act of creation.

Condensed from an article originally published in Canadian Family Physician, Oct. 2000, vol. 46

by Ann Loewen MD CCFP FCFP