Brains and Beauty: A "Public Interest Artist" Reimagines Her Life and Re-Images the MRI
When Elizabeth J. Jameson took a second career, she felt like she was cheating on her first one.
After 10 years representing incarcerated children and 15 teaching health law, the public interest lawyer was stifled by an MS exacerbation that produced the rare symptom of aphasia. She quit the law and took a community-college painting class as she relearned how to speak.
“I had a mad love affair with painting,” she said from her home and studio in Lafayette, Calif., near Berkeley. “I really felt guilty when I started painting more and more. I felt, ‘Am I being selfish? Am I wasting my training? I should be doing more civil rights advocacy.’”
She solved the dilemma by inventing a new job title: Public interest artist. To figure out what that meant, she phoned nonprofits asking if they needed any art. Equal Rights Advocates said yes, and she donated a series of portraits that ERA used in an anniversary celebration.
Then, “I had this brainstorm: If I’m a public interest artist, why don’t I do something with my disease? I thought, ‘What is the symbol of MS to me?’ There are many, but one is the MRI.”
Because she’d been treated at several MS centers, Jameson had a collection of big, ugly black-and-white MRI films. (This was before doctors could share images online.) She spent two years discovering techniques to make art from her own brain scans, lesions and all. First she used silk as a medium; then she found a way to photographically etch the images onto copper plates, from which she makes prints. She uses the richest, most sensuous colors she can find.
The goal: Stimulate discussion and appreciation by turning something threatening into something attractive. Shown here is Jameson's Conversation With Myself: Inside Out.
“It’s scary, it’s awful, it’s ugly — and beautiful, and intellectually fascinating, and aesthetically fascinating,” she said.
Now Jameson has become something of an MRI connoisseur, asking doctors for access to the latest machines. She is considering creating art from other medical scans, such as breast MRIs. “My best friend died of breast cancer, and we talked a lot about the issue of how we best talk to ourselves, and how physicians talk to us and about our disease,” she said.
Jameson is now certain that “public interest artist” is a genuine career: “I always wanted to make the world a better place.”
Click here to see more of Elizabeth J. Jameson's work.