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  • 06.30.16

Diagnosed With Multiple Sclerosis, An Artist Turns Her MRIs Into Art

“I want to take the fear out of looking at MRIs,” says Elizabeth Jameson.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Elizabeth Jameson was a civil rights lawyer, first defending children with chronic illness and disabilities, then fighting for gender equality. She worked in the prison system and in the White House on health policy alongside then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. In the late ’80s, she was playing with her kids on a local playground when she suddenly found that she couldn’t speak; later, she learned the cause was a lesion in a part of her brain called Broca’s area.

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Jameson regained her ability to speak through intense therapy, but in 1991 was diagnosed with a progressive form of multiple sclerosis. No longer able to practice law, she went to art school for painting and found she had a talent for it. Today, she’s known for her silk paintings and copper etching prints that are derived from a very personal source: her own MRI scans.

“I decided I needed to give back to my community,” she says–and her new community was people who were also dealing with neurological disabilities. “I was a public interest lawyer, so I decided to become a public interest artist, whatever the hell that would mean.”

What that came to mean was making brilliant, colorful, evocative artwork out of images of her own changing brain. A far cry from the black-and-white MRI scans encased in plastic that she started receiving frequently after her diagnosis, Jameson’s art captures the beautiful details of the brain–the splintering veins, the delicate folds, even the intruding scar tissue and lesions caused by MS–in rich colors and soft, grainy etchings. “I like the space, the shapes–it’s a never-ending unfolding,” says Jameson. “The brain is all compressed in the skull. If you decompress it theres a world’s worth of fascinating shapes and colors.”

Plenty of others have felt the same way: her work is in the permanent collections of the National Institutes of Health, Stanford University, Yale University, Center for Brain Science at Harvard University, among others around the world. Recently, she used a 7T–one of the most powerful MRI imaging techniques–to create a print of prominent neurologist Daniel Pelletier’s brain. The 16×4-foot MRI now lives at UC Berkeley’s Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Services.

Jameson’s early work took the form of paintings on silk that she started selling on her website. “I tried oil, acrylic and I wasn’t delighted. I went into the art of silk painting and spent about four months learning how to paint on silk,” she says. “I went through everything, and then a print-maker said she would teach me how to etch.” For her most recent work, she creates MRI prints using a Solarplating etching method that involves transferring an image from a transparent film to a copper aluminum plate using natural light from the sun. After using the plate to print the image on paper, she uses paints, colored pencil, and chalk pastel to enhance the color.

Jameson, who is now quadriplegic, makes art with the help of an assistant. She typically works with her own MRI scans; “my art is 90% my brain for the simple reason that I am my brain,” she says. For Jameson, the prints are a way to not only chronicle the changes happening in her brain–which she talks about eloquently; describing it as the “most sacred organ”–but also to become familiar enough with changes so they become less frightening.

She hopes it has the same affect on others: “I found that the actual MRIs, I didn’t want to look at them,” says Jameson. “They were black white and ugly and I just didn’t even want to look at them. A lot of patients feel the same way. I want to take the fear out of looking at MRIs. We’re all defined by the technology now, we talk to the image rather than the talking about the disease. I decided to find beauty in their complexity.”

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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