Imagine taking an illness that makes life incredibly difficult and turning it into art. It sounds like an impossible feat, but that is exactly what Kristy Stevens is doing.
Stevens was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) 10 years ago and she felt like her life was over at the time. Diagnosis of a chronic and life-changing disease can throw hopes and dreams into the gutter. However, instead of going down the path of despair, Stevens, who is a designer, has worked to “turn a negative into a positive.”
For people with MS, the areas where the protective sheath around the brain (myelin) has been damaged are revealed on a MRI scan. It works this way because it is made of fatty tissue and thus repels water.
Stevens’s MRI art
Stevens has taken the shapes and patterns that come out of her brain scans and started to use them to create art. With these images she makes jewelry, scarves, and screen prints. The V&A Dundee museum in Scotland, which is due to open in September of 2018, will be showcasing her work. In her interview with BBC Radio Scotland, Stevens said that she was “amazed” by the honor.
Now 31, Stevens was diagnosed with MS when she was in her third year of studying metal design at the Duncan of Jordanstone College in Dundee, Scotland. Those first symptoms involved her eyesight in her left eye becoming fuzzy and then she completely lost her sight in that eye. She also began struggling with her balance. After these initial symptoms she started having more relapses that primarily affected the muscles in her face including her eyes. MS is the last thing that a 21-year-old student is planning to deal with. Stevens recalls that at the time of her diagnosis she was convinced that she would be bound to a wheelchair and that her life would come to a screeching halt. However, luckily for her, she was not affected as severely as some.
Accepting diagnosis took a long time, but she overcame
Of her particular symptoms, Stevens says that fatigue is her main problem. She sometimes just feels completely exhausted and takes the day off from doing anything. When she is tired like this, she sometimes struggles cognitively, such as having a hard time thinking of a word that she wants to say. After a year, Stevens was able to accept her diagnosis.
With this, she decided to make the best of it. She was in her final year of school and was looking for final project ideas. While reading a magazine about science, she started thinking about how she could combine her own personal scientific situation with her passion for design. So, she went to one of her MS nurses and asked for a copy of her scans. Stevens intended to use her own brain images in her project to make patterns and design jewelry in order to raise awareness about MS.
The pieces that she has created using her scans embody MS in a unique way. One of her necklaces is an “emperor brain moth.” She took a scan of her whole brain, flipped and mirrored the image, and turned it into a necklace. She took the spots where the lesions can be seen and had those act as the eyes. Using her own brain lesions to create such as powerful and important part of an animal's’ body truly is the definition of turning a negative into a positive.
With this one piece, she has taken a disease that changed her life and turned into something symbolic and beautiful, using the part that impacted her own eyes to create the eyes of the moth. Currently, Stevens has access to about 30 scans of her brain. She says that each one is unique and you can see the white blobs that indicate lesions in each scan.
Art has transformed her
Through this transformative experience she has gone from being embarrassed about her disease and not wanting to tell anyone, to integrating it into her passion for art with the goal of creating beautiful things while also raising awareness. Using her MS in this way has made her proud that she has done something so beautiful with something so devastating. She is owning her MS, rather than letting it own her.
The integration of art and healing is hardly new. Art therapy is used for many conditions to help people cope and live fuller lives. Typically, art therapy is guided by a trained art therapist. Patients can use different mediums through which they can express their feelings and concerns, and cope with the psychological and emotional effects of their disease. It can also be a welcome distraction. Often times, people with chronic diseases struggle with or have to give up entirely activities that they love. Art can become a new hobby that may be more manageable than their previous hobbies. In addition, for people with MS, art can challenge the muscles of the hands in just the right way, thus helping people maintain their muscular strength. Stevens took a unique approach. Rather than having an art therapist and going through a specific program, she in a way created her own art therapy.
Art and healing have long been connected, as have technology and science. Stevens found a way to integrate the three. By using her own brain images to create something beautiful, Stevens not only has taken ownership of her MS and incorporated it into her life in a positive way, but she has also sent a message to others who may be going through a similar process. Her message is that when facing a chronic disease, you do not have to let it own you. Even when your diagnosis may have you feeling hopeless, there are ways to find positives in life. Hopefully her message will encourage more people to own their disease rather than reject it.
Accepting that you have a chronic condition can be incredibly challenging, and denial in the beginning stages is natural. However, acceptance is the first step towards truly being able to cope with a chronic diagnosis. Acceptance can enable people to find new ways to effectively treat their condition.