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The Anxious Artist: Reconnecting to the Body Through Art

I have always had a fascination with the human body. I remember when I was at school, I particularly enjoyed the human biology classes, especially when we were asked to draw diagrams of the human anatomy and physiology. Or I would look through textbooks, fascinated by the beauty and mystery of what lay beneath my own skin. My fascination has lived on as now I own a much-treasured copy of Gray’s Anatomy, illustrated by H. V. Carter, a 15th edition, published in 2010. Another book, ‘Human Anatomy; Depicting the body from Renaissance to today’ (Rifkin, et al 2006), which is truly fascinating to see how our understanding of the human body has evolved through the years. Also, ‘The Beautiful Brain’ (2017), which is a collection of the drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1954), a neuroscientist, who spent countless hours creating drawing that are both celebrated for their unparalleled accuracy and for their beauty as works of art. I cannot claim to fathom how it all works, my understanding is rudimentary at the very best, yet I am still mesmerised.

Santiago Ramon y Cajal; ‘Astrocytes in the Hippocampus of the Human Brain’ (1852-1954).

I enjoy visiting places like the Wellcome Collection, where I have sat in their reading room or library and sketched from their vast supply of books devoted to the human body. I think there is something in the creation of my own interpretations of these diagrams and drawings that offer an opportunity to establish a relationship with my own body. In this society we rely on doctors, nurses and other medically trained practitioners to examine and understand what is happening beneath our skin. However, it is rare that they really explain very much (that has certainly been my experience) and so we are left in the dark and detached and dependent on the so-called ‘experts’ and I wonder how healthy that is.

Artists have been fascinated by the workings of the human body throughout the ages. The anatomical studies of Michelangelo and Leonardo, for example, both very much influencers of medical understanding of human anatomy and physiology. However, my interest as an artist lies more in how we relate to our own bodies which work so hard to serve us. This interest has intensified over time as various parts of my body have ceased to perform as I need them to and so my attitude towards my body has changed as it became a source of endless frustration. It was these frustrations that became a partial trigger for my eating disorder, which only served to increase the complexity of my relationship with all aspects of my being.

Leonardo Da Vinci; Drawing (c. 1507).

I was inspired by an exhibition I visited a few years ago at the Wellcome Collection called ‘Misbehaving Bodies’. It brought together the work of two artists of different generations; Oreet Ashery and feminist photographer Jo Spence, who died with breast cancer in 1992. Spence’s raw and confrontational photographs documented her illness in the last decade of her life. Her work covered diagnosis, treatment, the experience of feeling infantilised by the medical establishment, and her attempts to reclaim agency as a person affected by illness. These were displayed alongside Ashery’s (1996) award winning mini series ‘Revisiting Genesis’ 2016, which explored death and dying in the digital era. Both artists’ work looked at health diversity and challenged our understanding of ‘untypical bodies’ for, indeed, surely we are all untypical in our own way. They reflected on how illness can disrupt and shape the way we think about the body, family and identity. The artists both question how we look beyond a patient’s diagnosis and develop a more complex understanding of illness.

Jo Spence: ‘Infantilization’ and ‘Announcements’, (1984)

Around the same time, I visited an exhibition at the Royal Academy, which paired Bill Viola’s powerful video installations with some rarely seen drawings by Michelangelo. Entitled ‘Life Death Rebirth’, the exhibition depicted the journey through the cycle of life. Bill Viola’s videos often focus on an individual body in a particular, extreme state: swimming, drowning, searching, gasping for breath, giving birth, being born and dying. He explores the relationship between the physical body and the soul and how the body can express internal spiritual states. I remember being particularly interested in ‘Man searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity’, 2013, which depicted an aging man and woman, on separate screens, which were larger than life, seeming to be searching and exploring each part of their bodies. They were touching and scrutinising every inch of themselves, which was something, as my weight declined, I had found myself doing more and more. Was I wondering what limits I could push it to, or searching for a lost connection? For what lay beneath became more visible as my skin had become more transparent, as fat and muscle tissue faded. There seemed to be something spiritual in this process, as in Viola’s installation, as I examined myself in this deeply vulnerable state, as I stood on the edge of life.

Bill Viola; ‘Man searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity’, (2013)

These exhibitions prompted me to begin a body (pardon the pun) of work, which was to help me establish a different way of connecting to my own ‘misbehaving body’. The works were made while I was receiving intensive treatment as a day patient for anorexia nervosa and couldn’t have felt more urgent. I considered all the various aspects of my body which caused me concern and frustration and sought to change this destructive relationship. Like Spence, I had been through the medical system, which only seemed to increase the sense of alienation that I felt, as I was passed from pillar to post. Each clinician I met with a different speciality and interest in an isolated body part, with no interest (it seemed) in how it functioned as a system.

So, with the use of body suits, cushions, teddy bears, felt, and sanitary towels, I stitched, embroidered and created something more loveable, wearable, tactile, tangible, accessible and even fun. I was not limited to what lay from the neck down, incorporating the mind, or brain with the body, which makes perfect sense, but so often Western medicine still manages to miss.

Naomi Elfred-Ross: ‘You’ve Got Guts’; ‘Amygdala Earring’ and ‘Frog in My Throat’. Photographs taken by Bruce Wang (2018/19).

Naomi Elfred-Ross: ‘Breathe’ and ‘You’re All Heart’ (2018/19).

The work was created and an exhibition venue, at Wynwood Art District, in Walthamstow was lined up, but then came the pandemic and everything was closed. The exhibition was never shown, except electronically, as I felt that the story of my body paled in to insignificance, when considering the intense distress experienced by those who were badly affected by Covid-19. I have since revisited the theme, in a slightly healthier physical state and through the medium of paint. I sought to recontextualise and abstract the recognisable forms of our various organs, creating something almost recognisable, but had taken on a new life and identity and personality. All were made using expressive colour and gestural mark making.

Naomi Elfred-Ross: ‘Intestines’ and ‘Rib Basket’ (2021)

Perhaps there will still be an exhibition ‘in the flesh’, as it were, it does feel important that the work is engaged with and shared as was originally intended. I’m sure I will know when the time is right. For now, I have technology to thank for the opportunity to share my art at a time when we could not be together and even breathe the same air.

By Naomi Elfred-Ross

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