Lyme Disease and Art – by Rachel Alban

Rachel Alban is an artist living with Lyme disease in the North of England. In this guest blog post she discusses her illness and the effect it’s had on her art. You can find out more about her work from her website.

‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. This is the kind of ‘inspirational saying’ which can haunt someone with a serious illness. The instruction is to make your weakness, your bitterness, your hardship, into a strength. And many artists, writers and creatives have embraced challenges such as this. So what can you make when life gives you Lyme?

rachel alban lyme disease and artAs a practising artist, I’ve found this question hard to answer. On the one hand, this question has a very prosaic, practical dimension. Most of the time, Lyme renders me unable to paint at all, and when I can paint, it is only for a day or two at a time. Realistically, this means I can only attempt small-scale works, if I’m going to complete anything at all. I’ve tried to treat this, not as a limitation, but as an opportunity to produce small but concentrated works of art, discarding anything from an image which I don’t find interesting, beautiful or significant.

rachel alban lyme disease and artThis also affects my subject matter. I try to focus on details, on the small things which would be easy to miss or to overlook, on big ideas bound up in tiny objects. My series on Microcosms epitomises this, and are all done in pencil because this allows me to complete an entire work in two days. In Microcosm #2, ‘The Centre Cannot Hold’, a humble ball of string is linked with the apocalyptic vision of W B Yeats. I hope the viewer looks at the potential of this neatly-wound ball to unravel into the kind of ‘mere anarchy’ that Yeats foretold, and is perhaps reminded of the centres of instability in the world at the moment which could so easily unravel our established world order – Russia, ISIS, Trump…

What has Lyme given my art in terms of content, though?

This is much harder to answer. The only time my art has been directly inspired by Lyme was when my first Lyme doctor asked for a painting of a tick. To be honest, I was dismayed. Even before getting ill the prospect of drawing a tick wouldn’t have thrilled me, but it made me feel positively queasy to spend hours contemplating the revolting creature which had completely destroyed my life. The final piece was done in two parts, with only one of them involving actual representation of my nemesis. (You can read about it in detail here.)

The bulk of the work in this picture was the painstaking painting of blades of grass. In some ways, it was cathartic to rediscover the beauty of these shards of emerald, gilded with light and sparkling with dew, but to a certain extent I had to forcibly sever the painting from its meaning while I did it, so that I could enjoy the form and colour without the faint feeling of fear which the sight of long grass will always now represent.

So, it is somewhat problematic for me that Lyme represents the infection of beauty with fear, danger and deep sadness. Of course, these very emotions could feed into my art. Many extraordinary works of the past have arisen from despair and pain – Picasso and Munch spring to mind. Unfortunately, to me the visual arts are fundamentally about life, and my experience of Lyme has been that it is opposed to life. Maybe if I ever recover, I will have the strength to put all of that into my paintings, which, at the moment, I try to limit as much as possible just in order to keep going. Lyme has taught me a huge amount – about contingency, about humility, about compassion, about frailty, about the preciousness of health, about the irretrievability of time. These are not things I find easy to incorporate into my art.

Funnily enough, when I feel submerged in these thoughts and feelings, the art form I turn to is never painting, but poetry. And, indeed, these poems often try to express how unartistic the process of illness is. In the media, illness is so often romanticised as a ‘battle’ – a drama even, with heroes and villains, heroism and a good old story line. Maybe some illnesses are like that (though I doubt it), but my Lyme journey certainly hasn’t been a meaningful story. It’s been a series of unfortunate events, medical negligence, fluctuating improvement and relapse, hope and despair, with no end in sight. The following poem really encapsulates the way in which illness, for me, is the antithesis of art: transparent and colourless.

Transparent Time

And so another day dies empty;
A quietly howling void.
Arms collapsed round the hollow
Mass of moments unemployed.

The darkness falls early
And is laced with death.
Not the sort of fulfilment and sorrow.
Only the utter absence of breath.

Today left like it never existed
And I watched its colours as
It passed. Past, now, into oblivion,
In its wake, not a memory cast.

Life is a luxury of moments –
To colour in, like pixels in time.
Today they were all but transparent.
Today not a pixel was mine.

Having said all this, I do have some projects in mind which are Lyme-related. The idea behind them is how Lyme transforms ordinary objects – garlic into antibiotics, garden plants into anti-malarials, lemons into detoxing agents, limes into symbols, tea and cake into poison. Every year I hope to complete projects like this in time for May, with the hope of adding my voice to the effort to raise awareness, but so far my health has not cooperated. If anyone has suggestions of other ordinary objects which have transformed in significance since their illness, then do get in touch via my website. Then the only trick will be finding time when I’m well enough to commit all these ideas to canvas!