Refusing to Let Chronic Headaches Keep Her in the Dark, this Artist Reveals the Light

Artist Bethany Noël Murray’s paintings focus on the fine details and strange beauty of her aura-filled chronic migraine condition.

 

Imagine walking through the woods and suddenly your body seems to shrink. The trees and bushes around you grow larger as you become tiny on the forest floor. Patterns of light in the foliage and shadows on the ground flicker and merge as you become sensitive to every sound. These perceptual distortions are experienced by people with chronic migraine with aura. Bethany Noël Murray turns these visual – and often painful – experiences into art.

 

What Migraine Attacks with Aura Feel Like

Bethany’s lifelong pursuit of painting began with her first art sale as a teenager, and she has continued to exhibit her work and win awards ever since. After studying biochemistry for two years, a full scholarship from the Rhode Island School of Design felt like permission to focus 100% on her art. “Painting is something I’m going to do until I die; it’s something I’ve been doing my whole life,” says the Boston-based artist.

Image courtesy of the artistForest by Bethany Noel, acrylic on canvas, 2016.

And with more than two decades of migraine attacks already under her belt, she has plenty of material. With Bethany’s headaches come ocular aura such as how one might perceive the forest described above. She shares what she sees during these attacks through art because of what she calls the “strange” way she perceives the world.

“I wanted to capture that edge of not just ‘this is what something looks like,’ but ‘this is how something feels,’” she explains. “Sometimes when you have a little bit of a different perspective, you can take something that’s a little bit ordinary and make it quite extraordinary.”

Bethany’s range of sensory disturbances give her that different perspective. She jokes, “People take recreational drugs to see some of the cool stuff that I’m seeing, but I take drugs to stop.”

In fact, she shares that she wakes up and goes to bed every day with pain and a plethora of symptoms. “Sometimes I won’t have a pain-free day at all for most of the year, so there’s always this baseline.” For her, this means heightened sensitivity and ocular aura, which includes lights and dots superimposed on her vision.

Sometimes, she feels the effects of Alice in Wonderland Syndrome—a very real clinical disorder characterized by distortions of visual perception (eg, a person may look stretched out or an object may appear extra bright or wavy), body schema (where and how you feel your body in the space around you), and the experience of time. Clinically speaking, this syndrome may include micropsia, which is when objects appear smaller than they are, and its opposite, called macropsia.2

In addition, Bethany is sometimes overwhelmed with sensory input and can’t filter out all the data that she normally would. She explains that when looking at a scene, most people’s brains simplify to create a whole picture, so they don’t see every blade of grass or every pebble. But sometimes, for her, that simplification doesn’t happen.

“With my migraines, I frequently am so information-saturated that it’s almost like I can’t not see everything,” she says. “I’m so sensitive, and it feels like every bit of information in the field is crushing in on me.”

Image courtesy of the artistNorthern Kingdom by Bethany Noel, acrylic on black gessoed canvas, 2015.

 

Transforming Migraine Aura to Art

An interesting feature of Bethany’s work is that she focuses on painting the light of a particular scene. She explains that she starts by painting the canvas black.

“I use that black as the shadow and the darkness, so I’m actually trying to reveal the light and not add dark to it,” she says. “It’s a little bit of a different way of thinking and processing that information.”

In her painting Northern Kingdom (pictured above), the three trees are actually blank, and everything is added around them. “I am interested in that negative space and in showing the sometimes small and unnoticed. And if my brain’s beating me over the head with all that sensory data, I’ll use it.”

Bethany is able to capture her experiences using a combination of ink drawings on paper, chalk pastels, and different sizes of test paintings to complete a piece. As a classically trained painter, she knows how to draw from observation and build a standard landscape, composition, and perspective. She finds that sometimes an idea will only work as a small piece on paper and not as a larger painting.

She paints and draws daily and says that sometimes she uses a sketch that she made years ago for a new painting.

When the sensory overload contributes to her art, the results can be stunning. But it’s not always easy for Bethany to deal with migraine in her daily life.

“As an artist, I’ve tried to find my way of sticking it to the migraine, so I’m trying to find a way to take a little control,” she says. “Painting and seeing what I could see was my way of saying ‘nope, you might have part of my body but you aren’t going to have the whole thing.’”

To help cope, she uses the spoon theory of pain management. In short, this approach encourages people with chronic illness to start every day with a certain number of spoons (representing a certain amount of energy) and to remove one each time they carry out a task. The tasks can be as simple as washing the dishes or preparing a meal. When the person run out of spoons, they collapse. (More on spoon theory for pain management.)

“I have a choice of saying I could give up or I could try to do as much as I can and see where I stop. Just because I might have fewer spoons than someone else doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try to spend them.”

Her art also helps her to keep a record of what she goes through. Sometimes her migraine attacks can last for weeks, much longer than the typical 4 to 72 hours outlined by the American Migraine Foundation,3 and once used to that level of pain, she can forget how bad it is. “It’s real, and it’s not fun, and it can make life pretty difficult. Painting it was about proving that it existed to myself even when I wasn’t in the middle of it and having a way of taking control of those memories and the experience itself.” (Editor’s note: cluster headache can last weeks or even months.)

Image courtesy of the artistOnabotulinum Toxin A by Bethany Noel, acrylic on black gessoed canvas, 2015.

 

Finding a Purpose and a Following

Some viewers of Bethany’s art recognize immediately that her work is based on migraine experiences; they frequently spot the micropsia and macropsia optical effects in Forest. She receives feedback when she shows her artwork, both in person and from emails or comments. “People with migraine and aura frequently will say they recognize the feelings,” she says. That recognition is “validating for me and validating for them, so that’s always really enjoyable to have—not that I want other people to have migraines, but solidarity is nice,” she says.

One particular ocular aura piece, Onabotulinum Toxin A (pictured above) elicits a strong response. “Certain people love it and certain people can’t even look at it because it hurts, so I try to find that little bit of an edge,” she says.

Emotional reactions to her paintings come even when people don’t know that her work is inspired by chronic pain. Like her method of covering a black canvas with light, this stems from her goal to reveal “beauty and joy and something good.” She says, “I try to not paint about pain directly. I try to find something good out of something bad, and it takes work to do that. I have a pretty good life, all things considered. So my painting is just part of who I am.”

You can see more of Bethany Noël Murray’s work on her website, https://www.bethanynoelart.com/

Read about more artists raising awareness about pain and chronic illness

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Updated on: 07/24/20
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Painting Through Chronic Nerve Pain: Annika Connor's Journey
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