Artist Struggles To Overcome Pain With Paint

How enzyme replacement therapy changed Ted Meyer’s art — and his life

By Elisha Sauers

Published August 25, 2006, issue of August 25, 2006.
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The canvases lining Ted Meyer’s studio seem too small for their contents. The jumbled skeletons they depict, upside-down and askew, resemble boxes full of bones dug up by an archaeologist and haphazardly stowed away for later scrutiny.

The paintings, from a series that Meyer has named Structural Abnormalities, are themselves artifacts from a bygone age. They record the artist’s struggle with Gaucher disease, a fight that Meyer is now winning.

With his long, wavy hair and pacific disposition, Meyer might be able to fool most people into thinking he’s never had a thing to stress about. Based on appearances, one would never know the artist was born with Gaucher disease (pronounced go-SHAY), for which he has endured countless hospitalizations — one resulting in the removal of his spleen and two others with hip replacements — before the age of 30. Sometimes, at the height of his illness, all the doctors could do was sedate him until his swelling went down.

His body and bones, Meyer said, “were not made as they should be.”

Now 47, Meyer receives enzyme-replacement therapy and is healthier than ever. And so is his artwork.

Gaucher disease is a disorder that causes lipid-storage problems. The organs and bone marrow fill with unneeded fats, causing brittle bones, anemia and swelling of the liver and spleen. It comes on in stages. First there are nosebleeds. Then the skin of the gums grows irritated and begins to slough off. Meyer began experiencing the symptoms at the age of 7.

Meyer was never alone in his ailment. One of his two older brothers also suffered from the disease, but his symptoms had the doctors his family consulted stumped. Meyer’s parents sought numerous opinions, but their boys baffled one doctor after another. At one point, when the pain in Meyer’s legs made it so that he could barely move, the doctors even thought they might have to resort to amputation.

Though Gaucher is a genetic disease, it isn’t uncommon for families not to know they are carriers; this was especially true when Meyer was growing up in the 1960s. Some of his great uncles had died as children, but the cause of those deaths was still unknown at the time. Neither his father nor mother had even heard of Gaucher before their sons were eventually diagnosed with it.

“I just remember that I was learning that it was something that I had inherited,” he said. “I wasn’t really ever given a ‘You might die from this.’”

Meyer recalls that some of his first artistic inspirations came from within the sterile walls of a local hospital in New Rochelle, N.Y. But perhaps the confinement of a whitewashed hospital was just the blank canvas Meyer needed to tap into his special gift. As he lay in bed, a woman with a cart of assorted craft supplies, crayons and paper would make regular visits to his room, providing him with the materials to express his creativity.

“I always sort of associated art with the hospital,” he said.

During one of those early hospital visits, Meyer’s abdomen became dramatically distended. His spleen, which had grown large with excess fat, had to be removed. But even that surgery brought him little relief, as the pain of his disease was greatly intensifying in his legs.

“Sections of the bones were just sort of slowly dying,” he said, “and it was pretty much the same on the pain level.”

Still, Meyer doesn’t think of the disease as having monopolized his adolescence.

“It’s not like I was deprived of everything,” he said. “The times when I wasn’t on crutches, I would walk with a limp, but I could still play baseball and ride my bicycle.”

When Meyer was still in his 20s, Gaucher caused him to undergo two separate sets of hip-replacement surgeries. At a time when most of his peers were in the best shape of their lives, Meyer’s joints were failing him.

It was at this point that he picked up his paintbrush and began work on the Structural Abnormalities series, with its ghoulish portrayals of awkward skeletons.

“When I was sick, I tended to do a lot of art that was sort of depressing,” he said.

Then, his life — and life’s work — took a turn for the better.

A little more than a decade ago, Meyer began enzyme-replacement therapy, and his rehabilitation was almost instant. He would pay a visit to his doctor every 10 to 12 days for an intravenous infusion of the enzyme he lacked. Within half a year, his Gaucher symptoms had virtually disappeared.

Suddenly he realized it was time to put his discombobulated-bone paintings aside.

“Once I started the therapy, I got so healthy,” he said. “I realized I’ve got nothing left to say about being sick anymore.”

He has moved on to other projects. Meyer’s latest is a series called Scarred for Life, an extended exploration of other people’s stories of trauma and survival.

“It occurred to me that, if I currently had nothing to say about my medical condition, maybe I should make a statement about how I viewed other people’s lives and conditions,” he said.

Lying awake in bed one night, Meyer had an epiphany. As he gazed at the deep, curvy engraving on the back of the woman sharing his bed, inspiration took hold of him once more. Scars, he thought.

“I had moved to California, and I was dating this woman who had broken her back,” he said. “I was really impressed because she seemed to never let the fact that she had broken her back affect her. I would think, ‘How can I do something with this?’”

Meyer began transferring the trails of scars onto monoprints, which he then embellished. Caesarean sections, missing fingers, scull fractures and heart-transplant scars are the stuff of the series, which he called “the road maps which make […] life unique.”

“I had never thought much of my own scars. I had focused my thoughts and my art more on the damage done internally to my bones,” he said. But now, Meyer is making it his mission to capture the trials and tribulations involved in the formation of human scar tissue, emotional and physical. Along with each print, Meyer records with words the story of the bearer and how he or she attained the scar.

“My hope is to turn these lasting monuments, often thought of as unsightly, into things of beauty,” he said.

Beginning in late September, the Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., will showcase Meyer’s work with an exhibition that will continue through March 2007.

Adrianne Noe, the museum’s executive director, is excited about Meyer’s upcoming show. She feels that his art has a powerful message about the healing process and how to contend with illness.

“I think people will be fascinated by it,” she said. “In the uniqueness of every object, he has struck upon a universal chord.”

She also commended Meyer on his talent for storytelling.

“As good as he is about making these unique images beautiful, he is even better at getting people to describe their stories through these scars,” she said.

Meyer anticipates that viewers will benefit from experiencing his scars exhibit, and he hopes they will find something within it to which they can relate.

“Nobody gets out of this life unscarred, so we all have to learn to deal with it,” he said. “It’s all sort of about the markings that are individual to us.”

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