How MS Took One Woman From Public Interest Lawyer to Artist
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Elizabeth Jameson’s life mission has always been to make the world a better place. As a public interest lawyer in the 1980s, she made civil rights issues a big part of her career. So when Jameson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992, she made it an opportunity for advocacy. Rather than completely stopping her efforts to help others, she turned to art as an outlet to produce beautifully haunting public interest art. Her pieces explore the complexity of her changing brain and have the power to change the way others living with MS, doctors, and neuroscientists see the narrative of chronic illness. Creating vibrantly colored solarplate etchings, as well as digital and textile collages of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, Jameson makes MS accessible and approachable to those who know nothing of the disease.
Because Jameson's artwork has evolved so naturally, it's hard to believe she didn’t have an interest in art prior to her work as a lawyer. As an undergraduate at Stanford University who later graduated from U.C. Berkeley’s School of Law, she says her focus was law because, "I thought that it was important to help the poor and the unrepresented. Ralph Nader was my role model. Anti-war leaders were my role models. I grew up in the time of the race riots, so I knew I wanted to make change in the world.”
By the 1980s, Jameson was spending a lot of time in federal court on behalf of disenfranchised youth. After representing a child with cancer who had been denied medical benefits, she focused on working for families who had been denied healthcare for children with chronic illnesses or disabilities. Her goal was to find out why so many children—especially those with chronic illnesses—had not received healthcare financing, so she decided to pursue a post-doctoral fellowship in health policy at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in 1984.
While working with then First Lady Hillary Clinton's Task Force on National Health Care Reform in 1991, Jameson established the definition of "medically necessary care" with other healthcare professionals. Though the reforms they worked on didn’t pass, she is proud that the language she came up with is now standard in President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act of 2010.
The turning point of Jameson's story is that while on a playground with her two sons, she suffered an inflamed lesion in her brain. Only a year after her trailblazing work in healthcare reform, she suddenly lost her ability to speak and her condition rendered her unable to work in a courtroom. Refusing to let her aphasia stop her from fighting for others, she switched gears to policy research.
Living with an unusual form of multiple sclerosis, Jameson's arms and legs were affected rapidly and she went into a depression. Her friend encouraged her to attend a community art class, though she had no experience, and by the first class, Jameson said she fell in love: "I just can't explain the joy I felt having a paintbrush in my hand, and opening up the paints and smelling the paints. Something about art just spoke to my soul." For three years at the California College of the Arts, Jameson pursued a degree in art, painting portraits and still life, which she successfully sold. However, she quickly grew bored of the fact that she wasn't making an impact with her art.
Jameson working on inking a solarplate in her studio, before she lost use of her hands
Jameson says, "After a lot of reflection and the help of other artists, I decided I wanted to transition from public interest law to public interest art, even though I had no idea what that meant." Volunteering to create a series of portraits of diverse women for the tenth anniversary of nonprofit legal organization Equal Rights Advocates, Jameson found her place in the art world when the organization decided to make her portraits the visual theme of their next conference.
It was after this first success that Jameson realized she needed to do something with the stacks of thick black and white plastic MRIs in her office. She says of her scans: "They are ugly and creepy, but to me, they're the symbol of MS, because I've had tons of them and people with the disease get at least one MRI in their lifetime." Wanting to find beauty in her condition, she spent three years painting on silk, then with the encouragement of friend and printmaker Sherry Bell, she tried solarplate etching, which transformed her work and how she interacted with her MRIs.
Jameson now finds herself constantly experimenting with different artistic mediums and exploring the idea of working with quadriplegics and people with traumatic brain injuries. Her assistant and fellow artist, Michelle Wilson, serves not only as her hands, but also as a collaborator who helps her apply to open calls for art at hospitals. While her main audience is the neuroscience community—her work has been published in Discover, Oxford University Press, and the Indian Academy of Neuroscience's journal—she'd like to reach out to patients and physicians.
When asked what she wants people to know about MS, Jameson says, "One has to work every day to be really resilient and productive. Getting a diagnosis is frightening and no one has discovered how to help progressive conditions. I'm honored and privileged to be able to afford Michele to help me with my artwork and have the wonderful support of my husband, but those without money with this disease? They're as disabled as their pocket books. For now, I'm giving back where I can."
On May 29, World MS Day, become a part of the “What’s Your Motto?” awareness campaign, which aims to inspire people with personal mottos related to overcoming obstacles and dealing with the adversity posed by MS. Show your solidarity with the global MS movement here. You can also contact your representatives and urge them to support continued research funding through National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). More research is needed to find a cure for MS, and you can help.
First image of the artist with her permanent collection at Harvard University Center for Brain Science, "Conversations with Myself: A Brain Journey.”
Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Jameson. See more of Jameson's artwork at jamesonfineart.com.