More MS news articles for Aug 2001

Healing through art

Two women face their illnesses through painting, sculpture

Sunday, August 26, 2001
By Dana Oland
The Idaho Statesman

Surel Mitchell

Art helps make sense of it all

Surel Mitchell feels the weight of the paintbrush in her hand. She adjusts her grip and fingers its straight shape, its smooth wooden surface. A paintbrush once felt like part of her being, like her thumb or a finger, a bridge from herself to her canvas.

Holding the brush now is different. It's hard to describe how. It's just not the same. It feels distant and thick in her hand.

"It's the MS," she said. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 17 years ago. "I never thought about touch being something other than temperature or pressure or pin pricks, but it is."

She sets the brush down. That's enough for now. Once a prolific artist who worked hours upon hours, now she works for short periods -- sometimes five minutes, sometimes 20. Then exhaustion takes over.

It takes longer, but every stroke changes something, she says. Every stroke heals.

"I don't know how people who aren't artists deal with something like this."

Mitchell has spent a lifetime putting her thoughts, fears, frustrations and joys on a canvas. It's how she functions in the world. Since being diagnosed with MS, and then with systemic lupus three years ago, the 56-year-old artist has found her work helps her make sense of it all.

"You're not expecting anyone to pass judgment on it, then you can let out a lot of things. I was an artist before I was sick, so I was already processing all this emotional garbage. It's not like I started it to be the therapy. It's truly a gift that I have. Without it, I'd go crazy."

Her art helps her process her diseases, she says. It has even shaped her art.

Her MS diagnosis came in 1984. One morning, while on vacation in McCall with her husband and daughters, Mitchell woke up to find the vision in her right eye flecked with small pinholes of darkness.

It wasn't the first time this had happened. The first time, she had convinced herself it was a fluke. The second episode was terrifying. By late afternoon the dark spots were growing together. By evening she had no vision in her right eye.

An optical specialist in Portland recommended Mitchell see a specialist with an expertise in MS. That's when she knew.

MS has erratic symptoms. Plaques form around the nerves. Sometimes signals work; other times, they don't.

She's experienced loss of sensation throughout her body. It's like the paintbrush in her hand; the world feels thick and removed.

She has trouble focusing at times and has sporadic memory lapses. Once, she forgot how to tie her shoelace. Another time, she couldn't remember how to park her car.

"I just couldn't do it. I looked like a fool. It's very scary to think about, and depressing, because I was very aware of what was happening," Mitchell said. "I can feel my brain shrinking."

Then the symptom goes away. Tomorrow, it may be something else, or she may be fine.

"It's really funny how your brain adjusts. It catches up. Our whole nervous system is amazing."

The systemic lupus also affects her brain. It also makes her feel sick at times and generally exhausted. The heat makes it worse. It drains her energy to the point where she can do nothing. That makes her "a mole person" in the summer she says.

"Blinking is sometimes an effort."

Mitchell takes medication daily. One for the lupus that she injects helps her concentrate, but it's not the same.

"I used to be really productive. I can't focus. I can't concentrate. Everything is an effort."

Her illnesses have forced her to change how she works over and over again.

Paintings from those different periods of her life hang on most every wall of her large, open home studio: Large flowers done in oil stick hang in the bedroom; a wildly colorful, highly textured abstract towers over the couch; small, intricate, mixed-media collage pieces dominated by bright copper foil are sprinkled everywhere.

There is even a piece for her cat, Ms. Claw-dia. The small framed image of a cat hangs just above Claw-dia's bowl, about four inches off the floor.

Everything else lives in storage shelves at one end of her space.

The paintings from her black period were inspired by her temporary vision loss.

Mitchell bought as much black paint as she could find and painted large expanses of darkness interrupted by great intrusions of bright, metallic colors depicting light.

"It was saying, 'Intrusions can be good. Change can be good.' That's what I was dealing with."

The period lasted three years.

Her dancing colors, a series of large canvases featuring squiggles and slashes of brilliant color "dancing," came next.

Then came duct tape.

"I thought that if I had duct tape in my house, my car and my studio, I could hold my life together. I thought, if you love it, use it."

As her marriage fell apart and her disease became worse, Mitchell started using duct tape on her canvases to make lines and define spaces.

Then, when she lost the sensation in her hands, and holding a paintbrush was depressing, she found copper.

On a trip to New York City, she stopped in the Canal Street Surplus Store and found pieces of copper foil. She brought them home and let them sit for a while.

"Finally, I realized that if I didn't get out to the studio, I was going to flip out completely, so I started working with the copper."

Even though her hands were at first awkward, with limited sensation, she found the copper would respond to her touch.

She could bend, puncture and color it.

She could mutilate and camouflage it. She could make it look different, but the molecules were the same.

"Like me in reverse. I look the same, but I'm not the same."

That's a theme she's worked on again and again, like her piece about hybrid creatures.

The beasts are half lion, half bird. Some are serpent-like.

One is the image of a monkey injected with a florescent jellyfish gene so scientists can track the gene in its system.

In the top center is a mirror.

"I can look at this and ask, 'Am I the hybrid creature?' "

Mitchell will continue to pick up a paintbrush every day she can, she said. The day she can't express herself will be the day she gives up, she said.

"I don't like to think like that. I'm really an optimist. If I can't do visual art, I suppose I would write or speak into a tape recorder. What if I end up in a wheelchair? I'll become a wall designer, and I'll be in an automatic wheelchair and with a bucket of paint and a brush and have an automatic arm so I can slap color on a wall."

Juliana Arriaran

She's 'saying no to the disease'

The clay shape in the corner of Mosaic Gallery Wine Bar gleams under the small, soft, white spotlights. The piece shows a torso. One side is withered and hollow, the other full and energized.

To its creator, Juliana Arriaran, the piece pays homage to her recovery from breast cancer.

"With Gratitude Arms of Love" is a powerful piece among this body of work completed in 2001.

"I'm so grateful I can use my arms," Arriaran said. "I know the fear of cancer. With this piece, I'm looking at it and saying no to the disease and yes to life."

With her hands in clay, Arriaran has healed a litany of sorrows, fear, tragedy and cancer.

"With Gratitude" was inspired by her third cancer threat in 1998. She had to go in for a bone scan to see if it had spread to her bones. The experience, fear and emotion shocked her and pushed her back to her first diagnosis.

Arriaran was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990, one year after her brother was murdered as he was robbed in Florida.

She received her diagnosis by mail in Hawaii, as she waited to enter a Buddhist retreat. She began studying Buddhism in 1981, mixing its tenants with her Christian beliefs.

She was devastated.

" 'Why me?' I thought. I was an emerging artist. I had worked so hard. It wasn't fair. But I had to let go of that," Arriaran said. She went into a meditation retreat.

With the support of her Buddhist teacher, Arriaran decided on surgery to remove her right breast without chemotherapy.

She had the option for a partial mastectomy and radiation treatments, but decided to have the more invasive surgery instead.

"When they gave me that option, I asked my teacher if I should keep my breast. She said, 'What do you want to keep it for?' It made me think, what's more important -- this breast or my life?"

Arriaran returned to Boise, her home since 1978, to heal.

Her physical recovery was slow. After the breast surgery, her arms were weak. Doctors had removed 18 lymph glands in her chest and right arm. She wasn't sure she had the strength to sculpt.

Another cancer scare came a year later. That led to a hysterectomy. Her stress was magnified 10 days later when her father died. Six months later, her grandmother died.

After her hysterectomy and the stress and loss of her father's death, there was the emotional work, too.

"I had to let go of so many things, my idea of glamour and pride. I had to grapple with my own mortality."

Arriaran had all but given up.

Then came "Restoration."

It was a serendipitous phone call. A man by chance in the Boise Airport saw a small piece of Arriaran's on display without even so much as a name plate to identify it as hers. He tracked her down and asked for a piece in that style.

She didn't want to sculpt, but she needed the money.

As she worked, three figures emerged from the clay, each enveloping the other. The work was inspired by her personal experience and her Buddhist studies.

At the bottom, a child reaches to the Earth, "reclaiming the right to be here." Above, a large figure encircles the child, "preserving what is good." Behind them, a young girl, "an innocent," looks out from a fold in the clay.

Arriaran worked in physical pain. Her body was still sore from surgery. The incisions were still red. The muscles in her right arm, which still shows small, lump-like scars, had weakened, and working was an effort. But the piece was a turning point.

"It restored my faith in life. It picked me off the couch. I had given up the idea of working."

In "Restoration" she found the essence of her beliefs, she said.

In order to create the third figure of the young girl, she had to meditate. She knew something needed to be there, but didn't know what. She fasted. She meditated.

"I realized I had been working and studying with master teachers, but I was too dependent on them. I needed to free-fall and trust myself."

Her studio became and remains a crucible in which she blends her beliefs with her sculpture.

"My faith is my art. This is where I meditate. This is where I come to awareness. It's like going into a dream. Dreams speak. You can ignore them, but they will come out somehow."

For Arriaran, her awareness emerges through her work.

She began working in clay as a young girl.

She wanted to be a folk potter. In looking for a teacher, she came to Boise and met master potter John Takehara, who was a professor at Boise State University at the time.

He became her mentor, her friend and her inspiration. Takehara was the first person to spot Arriaran's bent for sculpture. He spotted a small piece she did as part of her graduate project in 1986.

"He said, 'You need to do this.' And I really found my voice. I've been sculpting ever since."

Today, her art is an essential part of her healing process, both physically and spiritually. As she works in clay, she draws on her emotions. She puts her thoughts into the piece, transforming it into a mirror of her experience. That helps her get it out. Then, she can see it clearly as something tangible in her life, she said.

"It seems I'm always healing something," Arriaran said. "The form speaks about it. Words fall short. The work reveals itself to me, about what was happening to me, before I realized I'm doing it."

Like one of her pieces, she has reshaped herself over the past 11 years, she said. Her experience with cancer, her loss of loved ones, her acceptance of herself the way she is today have sculpted a new person.

"Eleven years out of cancer, I look in the mirror and there's an entirely different person there," Arriaran said.

"All my life, I wanted to be anyone but me. Cancer was the beginning of the walk home to me. I wish I didn't have to lose body parts to do it."

Arriaran continues to work on her sculpture but now she wants to take her experience and expand it.

She is waiting to find out about a career internship through the Kennedy Center to work with VSA Arts of Idaho, an organization that brings art into hospitals, nursing homes and other places to encourage people with physical and mental disabilities and illness to work in and explore arts.

To offer story ideas or comments, contact reporter Dana Oland at or 377-6442.