Commentary by Ted Meyer, Los Angeles-based artist. Meyer’s work is on exhibit through June 15 in the Smilow Gallery at NYU School of Medicine. Free and open to the public.
Every time I travel, people ask me if I expect to incorporate my travels into my painting. Will there be an Indian elephant or a zebra showing up in my work? I tell them all that I am not that sort of artist. No landscapes or sunsets for me. I explain that my work comes from a very internal place. For years it was Ted-centric and only dealt with my struggles to have a normal day-to-day existence. I was oblivious to elephants in my art though I have enjoyed riding them.
Since my childhood, I have created work about being sick or in pain. It all started with the “Art Lady” who brought her art cart to my hospital bed and suggested I make compositions with band-aids and IV tubes. Mixing illness and art seemed a normal confluence.
When I was older, I painted pained figures and broken bones. Progress I guess. Self directed art therapy, for sure.
After new treatments, joint replacements, operations and infusions I felt that I was pretty much normal and found myself a bit lacking in artistic direction. I didn’t feel it was honest to continue making art about being sick. I needed a new direction but nothing came to me and I refused to draw sunsets.
Now much of my work deals with others because of a chance meeting over 10 years ago. That was when I learned that a life can be changed by meeting one special person at just the right time. For me that person unexpectedly arrived at one of my art openings. It was a very Los Angeles kind of affair. I was in conversation with celeb guest Henry (The Fonz) Winkler and Candice Bergen when SHE rolled into the gallery, A beautiful woman whose grace only seemed enhanced by her wheelchair. She wore a stunning black dress with a low back. I couldn’t help but notice the long scar that graced her back.
Over time we had many conversations about our situations. She had fallen from a tree while a counselor at a summer camp. Still, she performed with a noted dance company and has had many roles on television and on stage. I was born with Gauchers disease and spent many years in some level of pain or discomfort. We shared a common acceptance of our differences to that of the “normal” population.
Before this meeting, I had never thought much of my own scars and I had many from multiple joint replacements, a splenectomy and the normal childhood emergencies and accidents. Most of my early artistic career focused on me, my body and my illness which I visualized as a very internal thing. I created images that reflected on the damage done to my bones and the mental pressure to choose treatments with new and experimental drugs.
During one of our talks, we discussed how her condition was obvious yet mine was totally hidden as long as I was dressed. We talked about our scars and what they represented and what it meant to allow others to view them.
I became focused on her scar as a way to tell a story. How rods had been inserted and removed from her body. How each operation on her back left additional markings. How the scar made visible the exact place her spine had been damaged. Her scar was not just a marker of her ability but rather a road map of what made her life unique. It wasn’t just a scar. It was HER scar. Something that no one else had. Not only did it make her physically unique but emotionally different. If I no longer had anything to say about my medical condition maybe I should make a statement about how I viewed other people’s lives and conditions. Maybe I’d become a documentarian. An artistic Studs Terkel.
Scars mark a turning point in peoples’ lives – sometimes for good but often otherwise. Each scar comes with a story. Why is it there? Would the person have died without surgery? How did the “scarring event” affect them emotionally? Scars can mark entering into or out of a disability. Going from cancer to health, limited mobility to full movement. They freeze a moment in time, a car accident or gun shot.
My mono-prints, taken directly off the skin of my model-subjects are portraits of those events that changed their lives. I accentuate the details of the scar with gouache and color pencil.
My hope is to turn these lasting monuments, often thought of as unsightly, into things of beauty.
Note: Sections of this commentary have been excerpted from the artist’s catalog for Scarred for Life.