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Patient advocate uses MRI scans to create art and spark conversations about life with illness

Patient advocate uses MRI scans to create art and spark conversations about life with illness

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Elizabeth Jameson creates art from the one thing she cannot stand to look at — the MRIs of her brain.

In 1991, Jameson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after losing the ability to speak during an otherwise unremarkable trip to the park with her two sons. Since then, she’s had many MRIs.

To Jameson, these images of her brain stripped bare were “black, ugly and scary.” At first, she refused to look at her brain scans, “but it was as if they were tattooed on my forehead. I couldn’t wash them off,” Jameson said in a recent Stanford Magazine story.

For a while, Jameson continued her work as a civil rights lawyer as symptoms of the disease came and went. As time passed,  multiple sclerosis ‘turned down’ the volume of her voice and she had episodes of aphasia, a condition that impaired her ability to speak or write. By the mid-1990s her symptoms had progressed to the point that she could no longer walk or stand. Jameson had to retire.

She discovered art when a friend persuaded her to attend a community art class:

 It was the first time she’d held a paintbrush, and she fell in love with the smell and feel of paint. She began painting “obsessively,” she says, but painting still lifes didn’t reflect her new identity as someone living with illness. Nor did it feed her desire to serve a greater good. Her mind kept returning to the stark black-and-white images of her degenerating brain that were accumulating in a corner back at home.

Jameson decided to confront her MRIs. Though she was no longer a practicing lawyer, she’d retained her desire to make a difference. Perhaps she could find a meaning in the MRIs beyond the stark black and white medical diagnosis, she explained. If so, it might help her and other people like her who had to undergo many medical tests and scans.

She explored her disease using Solarplate etching, a kind of printmaking that uses a light-sensitized, steel-backed polymer. Using this technique, Jameson began to expose snippets of her black-and-white MRIs scans to light. Once the light hit the image on the Solarplate, it etched a relief image that she could embellish with ink and print on paper.

Her courageous artwork has struck a chord with her viewers. “Elizabeth gets fan mail from people all over the world,” said writer and collaborator Catherine Monahon. “Her work makes a difference because it opens up conversations about issues that are typically so private, so taboo and yet so pervasive in our society.”

Image of “Valentine” by Elizabeth Jameson

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