Migraine headaches affect nearly 20 million Americans. The nausea, light sensitivity and blinding pain associated with migraines debilitate the sufferer. The intense pain may come on suddenly or can be preceded by a warning period of seeing stars, zigzag lines and blind spots. It’s ironic that out of this incapacitating affliction emerges a high level of creativity and artistic production.
Art Access Gallery presents Suffering In Silence: Creativity and Migraine, featuring migraine-inspired artwork by Ed Dolinger, Bonnie Sucec, Susan Madden and Jennifer Martinsen along with text by Mary Dickson.
The impetus for the exhibit came last year after Dolinger discussed his condition with a fellow migraine-suffering artist. For Dolinger, gathering his fellow migraine-suffering artists was a revelation. “The sharing and exchanging of war stories has been quite moving, with descriptions that rival poetry or literature,” he explained. The resulting exhibition uses art to bridge the myths surrounding migraine’s medical and scientific realities.
“It is a cruel irony that the very gifts of sensitivity that enhance my work in the studio, provide the triggers for episodes of debilitating migraines,” Dolinger noted. “Slowly over the years I have used this very strange downtime to explore the different mental landscapes that unfold while experiencing the classic migraine aura.”
These mental landscapes provide the inspiration for his mixed-media creations. Along an expansive wall, Dolinger has assembled 14 works that subtly reveal the human torso and head in the throws of a migraine attack.
Dolinger’s “Fugue” presents a dark, shadowy silhouette of a figure with head bowed in a posture of hopelessness. The edges of the figure are indistinct, shimmering and vibrating with pain and agitation. The hazy, blurred figure expresses the victim’s inability to see clearly during the attack and the bright slashes of color reveal the light-sensitive nature of migraines. Muddied, variegated dark layers of black, red, orange and green, and the scratched surface of the figure add to the moment’s overall intensity.
Migraine headaches have been a continual presence since childhood for Bonnie Sucec. “All of my paintings are migraine paintings, as they all reflect who I am and migraine is such a large part of my life,” she explains.
Sucec’s artwork is intricate and dense. The frenetic intensity of her “Red and Blue” reveals the clashing color, light and forms, as well as the struggle for focus, inherent in migraine pain. Sucec’s line is agitated and her colors are rich and dark with intense areas of bright blue, red and yellow.
Susan Madden’s “Self Portrait with Migraine” deals directly with migraine pain and its effect on the psyche. Madden, wearing a green dress, stands in front of an intense and clashing red background. A thick, black, cloud-like form covers the top left corner of the canvas reaching down and obscuring half of Madden’s head and face. Symbolic of the migraine pain, a sharp, intense area of red is located where her left eye should be. A red lightning-bolt-shaped brush stroke races down her body. The excruciating pain has taken away Madden’s identity and sight. Fittingly, Madden has depicted herself without arms, representative of the inability to do anything to stop the attack.
Jennifer Martinsen’s “Incubus” series consists of images contained in small black wooden boxes with thick, colored glass. In Martinsen’s “Incubus II” a figure’s dark and obscured face is pressed against the yellow glass. The figure’s hand holds its forehead in pain. Expressive of the inability to escape this pain, the somber figure appears trapped and confined in the small space of the box. The pressure of the figure filling the space to its capacity echoes the internal pressure of the classic migraine. The blurred, dream-like image speaks of Martinsen’s recurring nightmare pain.
The inclusion of writer Mary Dickson was a curatorial stroke of genius. Dickson gives literary form to the debilitating effects of migraines and provides greater depth to Suffering In Silence. Her textual contributions engage the visitor in thoughtful contemplation of what it means to be faced with this crippling pain. She explores the consuming, paralyzing and explosive nature of migraine headaches in her poem, “I Have a Headache.”
“I have a Headache. An excuse. A plea. A shamed admission. A whine. A warning. A scream. I have a headache. A tired refrain that means / nothing if you’ve never had a / skull crushing, eye popping / migraine. It’s not like your headache. It’s a / I’m going to be sick / I can’t move / can’t think / can’t speak / can’t breathe / Just put me in a dark room / without sound or scent / Because one more / sensation and I might just die / kind of headache. I have a headache.”
Suffering In Silence expands public awareness of the effect migraine headaches have on loved ones and close acquaintances. The exhibit also allows fellow sufferers a common forum for exploring and expressing their own relationships with migraine headaches, Dolinger says. “I feel strongly that this reservoir of expression must be tapped and shared with the public, particularly for other migrainuers.”
“By describing the pain in words and images, we hope to help people who are headache-free understand what it means to live with migraine,” Dickson says. “Or we hope to help those who aren’t so lucky know that they’re not alone, they’re not crazy, unbalanced or weak. They’re just unlucky enough to dwell in the land of migraine.”
Suffering in Silence: Creativity and Migraine hangs at Art Access Gallery through May 28.