How an Artist Uses Her Pain to Make Incredible Political Street Art
Her multiple sclerosis causes debilitating pain and blind spells, but this artists refuses to quit
On a wall near a busy intersection in Downtown Los Angeles you will find Bernie Sanders’ head painted several feet tall. His rendered gaze is staring somberly to the side at the words “It’s time. FEEL THE BERN.” emblazoned in white text. This is the work of Lydia Emily, a Los Angeles native and street artist. She painted the mural just hours after being released from the hospital, where she was being treated for the symptoms of progressive multiple sclerosis (M.S.). Through extreme joint pain and fatigue, Emily completed the portrait, a tribute to her favored political candidate. Later, she will go on to paint a second “Feel the Bern” mural just a few miles away in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood.
The 44-year-old artist started painting in her 20s, when she was a member of a “horrible punk rock band in the 1990s.” She specialized in oil portraits of political figures like Hamid Karzai and the Dalai Lama, but she only found success after she began putting her paintings on city walls. Emily has always been an advocate of social causes—one of her first murals was an anti-sex trafficking piece—but after she was diagnosed with M.S., she began to paint with more urgency than ever before. Now, she’s the subject of a feature-length documentary about her life called PC594, and director Libby Spears is crowd-funding for the project on Kickstarter. GOOD spoke to Emily about the documentary, her work and her struggle to make art through incredible pain.
What’s the story behind the Feel the Bern mural in Downtown LA?
I flew [down to LA] to do the mural in the evening and I had a terrible M.S. flare-up. I got so sick I ended up spending the night in the hospital at USC having whatever services I need done for my M.S. I was released the next day and I went straight to the mural site and then did that mural in a couple hours. I have a crew in Los Angeles.
We just did it because I can’t afford my medicines that are keeping me alive. I can’t afford the treatments. I can’t afford the insurance. I can’t afford any of it. So for me, Bernie Sanders is somebody who could keep me alive. It’s not just politics for me. It’s a matter of life and death.
Wow. What is it like working on that mural, or any of the murals that you have to do, while struggling with M.S.?
It’s really painful. I have ice vests that I wear because one of the worst things for M.S. that you can do is get hot. We don’t have any temperature gauge. It’s one of the things you lose with M.S. I never have any idea how warm it is outside. It always feels nice to me even if it’s 100 [degrees].
Wherever I’m working, I have a car in front of the mural site that I duck in and sit in [for] the air conditioning for a few minutes at a time. Sometimes I duck in and pass out for half an hour in the cool and then I jump back out again and finish working. I do my best not to schedule murals in the dead of summer, but sometimes it’s 100 degrees in April. Sometimes it’s 100 degrees in February for no reason. So there’s no way to have a fool-proof plan in place for what I do for a living.
How did get into painting murals? You were doing oil paintings at the beginning of your career.
I was doing oil paintings of political figures and nobody wanted them. For 20 years, nobody wanted a political person in their house. People were like, ‘I don’t want a painting of sad Obama in my house.’ And galleries would not show me. Once I did a painting of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or I did a painting of Hamid Karzai. I did paintings of crazy people, so nobody wanted them.
But what I was saying about those people became important to people who don’t go to galleries. My fanbase started to grow in weird countries. They said, ‘You should make those into fliers. You should put those up in the street or whatever.’ And that’s what I started doing. I started making photocopies of my oil paintings of Hamid Karzai and I’d put them up in the street. I found my audience. I realized I’d been going to the wrong place. I’d been going to galleries and they like paintings of tits and flowers and I don’t do tits and flowers. I’ll never do tits and flowers.
When I started putting my paintings out on the street, my core audience found me. And then galleries that understood what I was doing were able to find me. I realized that all those years, I was going to the wrong places.
When were you diagnosed with M.S.?
I was diagnosed three-and-a-half, four years ago.
Oh, wow. So it’s relatively new for you.
I had cancer in 2010 and then M.S. in 2012. I got a lemon, a super lemon. The powers that be were like, ‘Send down a used body for that one.’
It was terrible but it was comforting to know there was something wrong. I was in pain for a year. I was going out and doing murals and I was in terrible, terrible pain the whole time. I was losing the ability of one of my feet; half my tongue was numb. I had crushing pain in my shoulder. I kept going to the emergency room because I don’t have any insurance. One day they did a brain scan and they were like, ‘Oh you can’t leave.’ So that’s when they discovered I had M.S.
I have progressive M.S. which is the worst kind. It will be over for me at some point but, until then, I would like to be able to reach as many people as possible and help as many people as possible not feel so alone in this. People have no idea how painful M.S. is. They have no idea what it’s like to wake up blind or just to feel like you’ve been roofied. That’s what M.S. is like: It’s a permanent roofie. There have been days where I can’t walk. I’ve been blind twice, which is hard for a painter, as you can imagine.
Do you have to kind of relearn how to paint after the diagnosis?
I didn’t, but I’ve lost the ability to hold a brush for a time now. So I have these shoelaces and I tie them around my hands to hold the brushes in place. I can hold a brush for a small amount of time but when we’re out at a mural working between seven and 12 hours a day, there’s no stopping. Even though I have a crew, they can’t do any detail. But they can help me fill in stuff with bigger brushes. My eyesight is going with the M.S. progressively. I have a series of magnifying glasses and glasses on if I need to do fine detailed oil paintings for the gallery.
You just have to get up and keep going no matter how bad the pain is. I mean, that’s the thing, I think if I was painting tits and flowers, I don’t know that I would have the urgency or the passion to finish these gigantic pieces. I feel like the pieces that I’m painting aren’t for me. They’re for the neighborhood. If I have to stop a mural in the night and go to the hospital and get a blood transfusion so I can get plasmapheresis so I can come back the next day and be on my better game, then I’ll do that. That’s what I signed up for. That’s what this is about.
There is currently a Kickstarter project raising money for a film about your work. How did you get involved in this documentary?
Four years ago, just after I was diagnosed, I did a mural of a woman who had been sexually trafficked and been rescued for Chime for Change, which is Gucci’s charity. I had to get together with the woman who had been rescued and hear her story and then make a mural of her narrative. Chime for Change had hired a director to film it all so they could have a video, you know, for their charity.
The director they had picked was Libby Spears. She just spent a week with me and she saw that I have two daughters. I’m a single mother. One of my daughters has autism and needs full-time care. She wanted to do a documentary and I think in the beginning I said no because I didn’t want it to be about me. I only wanted to do it if I could help other people, and she said that this will help. ‘If one more person knows who you are and knows what your struggle is, that’s one more person who will buy a print or buy a painting and that will help take care of your kids if you, at some point, are unable to.’
It seems like when I try to think of famous political street artists, most of them are men. Do you think there are barriers for women to enter this kind of field, particularly street art culture?
It’s a boy’s club, but what isn’t? What’s interesting to me is the women in the street art community don’t necessarily reach out to other women. It’s not…they don’t think of it like that. They just think of it as street art. It’s so competitive that nobody wants to share their wall. I don’t find street art to be any different than car racing; everybody wants to come in first.
I always ask the community to come out and help me. The community has to care about the wall. If the community doesn’t care about the wall, it gets tagged right away. Nobody cares. They paint on it. But if the community, the people who live in that community, walk by it every day and say ‘I helped with this,’ the wall is safer for longer.