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Faith, Science, Truth, (& Naively Idealistic ‘Happiness’)

Alexis Neumann

A Collaboration between Annahita Hessami and Beau Stanton Cut Glass Studio at Stolen Space Gallery 2014 

The reason why I was so drawn to this piece by Annahita Hessami and Beau Stanton was because of the anatomical depiction of the figure while still being intricate, ornamental, elaborate, and beautiful. The positioning of the two panels and contrasting of colors reminds me of representations that I saw in my high school biology class of bodies and physiological structures with and without the circulatory system, including muscles or just seeing the skeleton, the various layers of tissue, veins, neurological components. But the interwoven embellishments and decorative distinction doesn’t just speak to human desires of beauty or ornament but also recognizes that small details can have such a profound impact on ability and presence.

I have always been moved by stained glass, maybe it’s the spaces that they frequently are found in with so much reverberation, ethereal awe or even just how it feels to be bathed in light. But a reason why I am so drawn to this media is because it physically alters your surroundings based on unchanging aspects of the world- the sun’s movements. And with this aspect rooted in something so foundational I feel free to express complexity, beauty, pain and other aspects of life that I often feel a bit uncomfortable depicting.

I remember a time when I stood in a beautiful church with giant stained glass windows, barely hearing the echoes of a choral rehearsal happening in another part of the building. This was a time when I felt a profound loneliness that couldn’t and wouldn’t ever be fixed by people or community. I came back to this church at times when there weren’t any scheduled events and when I hoped that nobody would be there so that I could just sit in this feeling and hopefully not be talked to by anybody. I watched the reflections move along the wall that I was sitting across from and took a picture, not of the large stained glass piece (which I’m sure many people spent years creating, installing, and maintaining) but of the distorted, colorful shadows. I posted this on my instagram with the caption “I’d always like to be where beauty, peace and hope live!” And now I look back at that caption and embarrassingly laugh because of my naivety and how damagingly and unrealistically ‘positive’ I can force myself to be sometimes, but I also remember how important those words felt to me and how impactful just one word can be.

I spend a lot of time looking up definitions, finding synonyms for words that I overuse, that have lost their magic and spark, trying to discover words that are more accurate to what I’m trying to express. One of my dreams would be to be able to eloquently say everything that I thought, felt, saw, or sensed (probably the motivating factor for any of us who write). I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I want each word to be carefully chosen and another unrealistically optimistic belief that I even have the capability of saying exactly what I want to say with all of my motivations, life experiences, and emotions being perfectly summarised and communicated. When in reality we are barely able to communicate what we mean to even the people who know us most in the world with all the words we know.

During this particular instagram moment and season of my depression I was significantly burdened with what my body ‘couldn’t’ do. This was right after the time when I got the diagnosis of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that produces pain in every joint in my body, migraines, stomach issues, complications for mental health and my immune system, as well as countless other symptoms.  I was mourning a life that I thought I would have had, the limitation now being that I couldn’t push my body to the extremes that so many other people could and that I relied on quite heavily in my overachieving past. In my relentless pursuit of ‘happiness’ (*read unfeasible optimism*) and just trying to understand why my body couldn’t work like how I wanted it to, I found myself gravitating to thinking about my body more anatomically or physiologically.

I never had an interest in science until I got sick. When I ‘got sick’ I had to become an expert on my body, rare disorders, connective tissue, the brain and gut interaction, reactions to complicated medications like SSRIs. I had to be an advocate for myself and for others to see me and take me seriously, I had to know how to speak to doctors who had spent their whole lives studying medicine and not fall apart. (I frequently fell apart.) I had to figure out how to command respect as a young woman who had a complex and painful relationship with her body and how others (especially men) see her. I spent years just looking for a diagnosis, only to find out that what I had was annoyingly rare and blatantly not believed to be real by some doctors, who thus brushed me off as or wrote in my chart that I was a hypochondriac, ‘pill pusher’ or worse- just lazy and overdramatic. I cried frequently in hospitals, ERs, doctors’ offices, (in line at Chipotle..) frustrated at myself for not being able to separate my emotions from my communication and at how crying was seen as a sign of weakness.

I connect with anatomical depictions of the body much more than figurative depictions because when I think about my body it is typically (and desperately) asking my body how can I get you to do what I want you to do? I feel disconnected from my body, constantly in a battle with it to let me do all of the things that my brain, heart, soul and vocal chords want to do. I frequently see figurative illustrations that don’t focus so much on the individual aspects of the body, especially the joints and connective tissue, which makes sense when people can see themselves as one fluid being. But when I think about my body I think about a detailed care plan, multiple medications at different times of the day, being careful not to stand up too fast so that I don’t pass out, eating so fearfully because I never know how my stomach will react to anything, making sure to avoid certain stimuli to try to ward off migraines, pain flares, nausea or depressive states. (In case this still isn't clear about how fragile my body is, one of my main stimuli is the literal sun, have you tried avoiding the sun? It is incredibly difficult.)

I haven’t figured out what is so transformational for me about stained glass and I don't know if I will ever really understand, it seems otherworldly, spiritual, and natural, like the feeling you get when you stand among centuries old trees just listening. I’ve thought about the prismatic colors, and the salutary power there was for me to just stand there and be immersed by color. I know that there is a religious and spiritual element but there is also this vibration that I most closely experience with music and how it feels in my body when I’m making music, when my whole body is buzzing with chills at the power that I feel when I use my voice. But I also experience it when I’m standing in reflections of light, a color bath. Maybe it has to do with the way that sound transforms to take up the full space- there is a wash of sound, you are being immersed in it and there is a similar aspect with light and standing in the reflections and vibrations of color.

This piece combines two aspects that I don’t often see combined- religion and science. These can be mistakenly seen as at odds, especially right now when we are seeing so much blatant refusal in acknowledging the truth (gaslighting). But definitions of faith and science are astoundingly similar- faith is the pursuit of truth and science is understanding the truth of the world.

An aspect that complicates these ‘simple’ definitions is that religion does frequently talk about miracles of curing, or getting rid of an ailment somewhat magically, but what if the condition is literally wired into your DNA with genetic markers? I’m frequently frustrated with ‘religion’ because there has been an emphasis in my own life on cures, on ‘God taking away one’s pain’, and don’t get me wrong I would welcome this, but I got through the ‘why me, this has to change, take away my pain season’ a long time ago. The book Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure by Eli Clare beautifully describes why wanting a cure is so problematic for people with a chronic illness. This is because it supposes that there was an original ‘better’ ‘non-disabled’ state that existed before (among many other issues further explained in the book). It’s inherently ableist without even recognizing, I have lived with depression and chronic pain for the majority of my life and I didn’t even realize this until recently (probably from the dismissal of my experience from so many people telling me I that ‘used to be so happy’ and that there was no way I had depression). Wanting a cure is an aspect of that naively reductionist and idealistic version of ‘happiness’ that I spent so long trying to force upon myself.

I typically feel ‘happy’ when I see stained glass- and by that I mean that I’d want to go stand under it and take an instagram-worthy picture to commemorate my ‘growth this year’ or ‘live, laugh, love’ (ok, I’ve never been that cheesy) but it has taken on a different importance as I’ve been practicing it within my own art practice. I have come to learn that denying reality or sugar coating it to make myself or others around me feel more comfortable doesn’t do much good because it challenges two concepts that I hold so dear- faith and science. The pursuit and understanding of truth and how that impacts people’s lives, recognizing that the truth is personal, experiential, historical and emotional and is individualized and informed by each person and their life. This piece encapsulates how these notions of faith and science don’t have to be dueling, how they don’t have to be at odds, but that they can and do inform each other. This joining of forces and cross disciplinary thinking can create a true joy in the beauty that comes from complexity, detail, vulnerability and truth.

Alexis Neumann is an installation and sculptural artist and academic in Portland, OR who focuses on making art that centers around mental health, spirituality, energy, invisible illnesses and more. For more information visit her website at https://www.alexisneumann.com or follow her on instagram @alexisneumann.art https://www.instagram.com/alexisneumann.art/