M.E. and the power of puppetry
Twenty years ago I worked as a self employed Doll Artist. I worked to private and corporate commissions, including for Waterford Crystal. I had my work in shops and galleries. And did some teaching too. Making puppets with a group of young people residing in a group home changed my perspective on the creative process. One funny young man of about 13 made a clown’s head. It was gorgeous, so full of expression. But when it came to making the hands, they came out as fists. A memorable moment, I witnessed the power of art and the power of puppetry.
Unfortunately I never got to finish making the puppets with this brilliant group of young minds. I became seriously ill with M.E. * Initially thought to be meningitis as I had severe headaches, and unable to deal with light, or sounds. I couldn’t sit up and talk at the same time and lost my ability to coordinate my movements. Within days I went from being a self-employed artist to needing help with my most basic needs. My finer motor skills, so important in my work disappeared. Over the following months I lost the ability to walk properly, to read, to write, having major problem with short-term memory, and experienced intense pain. A lot of these problems are still there. Twenty years on.
I blamed my more than full time job as a self-employed artist for the cause of my physical collapse. Lying flat on my back I swore that I would Never Ever wanted to make a living out of being creative again. I rather get a job at the butchers (my worst nightmare). But as one of my friends gently pointed out to me about a year or two into the illness, I was making drawings about not wanting to be creative…
In truth, my creative mind challenged me to explore this utterly changed existence from the start. As my brain was unable to hold on to thoughts, I had a notepad beside my bed, and in every room in the house. One morning I made a sketch of an egg. The dictionary reassured me that I had not lost my mind. I read that ‘Egg’ also meant the possibility to develop into a new individual. How true this was. I had to start from scratch again.
Over the years these ‘eggs’ hatched and became ‘birds’. The drawings, collages, and later plasticine sculptures about the challenges, hopes and desires of life with chronic illness ultimately led to personal understanding and acceptance. When able to write again I recovered these experiences also in my diaries. These words made their way in very abstracted ways into my first book Hatched – a Creative Journey Through M.E. illustrated with images of my explorative art. Hatched became a way to connect with the outside world again.
More than a decade later, my sculptures were built on roots. Using the same air-drying clay I used when working with the young people. This material allows me to work for short periods of time (limiting it to 20 minutes once a day). I realized that the sculptures represented being more ‘rooted in my reality’, in the acceptance of M.E. as a permanent fact of my life.
Roots, growing and remerging Into the Light.
For the past 4 or 5 years a sense of movement appeared in my work. I was utterly convinced that this meant I would be dancing again. Truly dancing.
How wrong I was. My mobility is decreasing again. But the suggestion of movement in my sculptures was the start of a very different story.
I returned to making puppets. This led to facilitating a workshop with (then) fellow members of the IWA. Our short final Life Outside the Box film, where our nine puppets step out of society’s disability box, has been shown at several international disability film festivals. Once every three months a short version is on People’s Angelus. A huge empowering step for people with disabilities.
I teach puppet making about an hour a week in my studio and through distant learning to reach others whom are housebound due to illness/disability or being a carer. I see in the work created, by others and myself, how the clay does not lie. The emerging puppets have their story to tell. The maker is not in control. The puppets are.
The invitations to give talks about puppetry, disability at two Broken Puppet Symposia and Nottingham Puppet Festival gave me a platform to share the power of this art form. And to dance a little with the world again. The ‘dance’ however is more a slow dance than a Jive. After a long period of recovery from my travels I am ready to explore puppetry and disability in more detail. My studio and I are ready for new adventures!
An invisible illness made visible through art and the puppetry.
* M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) is listed in WHO International Classification of Diseases as an acquired neurological disease. Affecting adults and children, it presents itself with dysregulation of the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems; impaired energy metabolism, and post exertional neuro-immune exhaustion. As in, if we go even a tiny bit over our allotted energy for the day, we end up with a huge increase in our symptoms. Even to the point that we are stuck in bed for days, or even weeks/months. See ME Advocates Ireland blog for further information