When I met artist Susan Trachman through mutual friends and she told me she had an exhibit of medical art at the UCLA medical school, I wanted to make sure I saw it. I’ve seen art with many different themes, but never art made from medical supplies. This exhibit, “Patient/Artist,” is a chronicle of Trachman’s 25 years of treatment for multiple sclerosis—treatment that has been central to nearly all of her adulthood.
Susan Trachman, “Living Color 2,” MRI scan of the artist’s brain, digitally colorized by the artist.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition in which the immune system attacks and damages the myelin sheaths surrounding nerves, resulting in many different symptoms; these can include motor impairment, pain, and numbness. In making the best of this life-altering condition, Trachman chose to make art from it, offering us an insider’s view of life with MS. Trachman has illuminated MRI scans of her head with eye-popping color, created elaborate floral arrangements with syringes, arranged 120 red plastic medical-waste containers in configurations that represent how the disposed-of treatments were used in her regimen, and constructed a variety of three-dimensional pieces containing medicine bottles.
Susan Trachman, “Relief at a Price,” 3D collage made of one five-day medical treatment package, mounted in plywood, covered in burlap, and framed in Plexiglas.
The artist has included captions with her pieces that explain what the various materials are and how they contribute to the larger picture of her experience. For example, in the piece “Relief at a Price,” the contents of one five-day medical treatment package (one 5-ml vial of Acthar Gel, five needles, five syringes, and five alcohol pads) are mounted on plywood, covered in burlap, and framed in Plexiglas. She writes, “When the tightness in my legs and the numbness in my extremities get to be too much, there are tools for temporary relief…but at a price.” And the price, as shown in the piece, is a whopping $25,000. “I can use Acthar Gel up to four times a year,” she remarks. “Thank God I have insurance.”
Trachman, a Los Angeles native with a background in both commercial and residential interior design, was diagnosed with MS in her mid-twenties. Once she began treatment, she began saving her medical supplies to see how she could eventually make something interesting with them. She began working on the pieces in this show about 7 years ago. Becoming creative with the supplies was a way for her to tell her story and remain positive about her condition, focusing on what she could do rather than what her condition prevented her from doing.
Susan Trachman, “Java Chip,” wall sculpture of 120 Sharps containers (used for the disposal of needles and syringes) hung on 9 steel rods.
This exhibit is a very timely one for me, since a good friend of mine was very recently diagnosed with transverse myelitis (inflammation of the spinal cord that is sometimes an early sign of MS). I took my pictures of Trachman’s exhibit to the hospital and showed them to my friend, because I felt they would be inspiring…although my friend, like Trachman, already has a positive, productive attitude.
This exhibit is one of a series that curator Ted Meyer intends for the Learning Resource Center, a new building at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Hopefully we will continue to see art at this location that has meaning for patients, their caregivers and loved ones, and lovers of art who may or may not be touched by people living with serious medical conditions.
“Patient/Artist” by Susan Trachman is running through June 30 at the David Geffen School of Medicine Learning Resource Center, 700 Westwood Plaza, Westwood. (I wish it was running longer—or, rather, that my schedule had allowed me to visit this show and blog about it sooner.)
Susan Trachman, “Flower on Steroids” (detail), digitally mastered collage printed on canvas. The artist writes, “When on steroids, all my senses are heightened. My extremities…no longer feel numb. I get a boost of energy, making me feel bigger than life.”