The representational work in a new exhibit of paintings and installations by artist and muralist Amanda Adkins tells a very personal story about living with chronic pain and the debilitating, incurable disease endometriosis. But it is also a story of connecting with community and living with hope for recovery.
Adkins has been experimenting with painting on wood. This was something she tried in her previous series, but the subject matter wasn’t as personal. She prefers wood to canvas for its grain and feel.
“When I began this series two years ago, I purchased a bunch of panels and decided that I was going to make it all on wood. I like that wood has a little more resistance and makes things a little more technical,” she says. “I wanted a challenge, and I wanted something new.”
She started this series shortly before her third endometriosis surgery. She began by painting a crow standing on three red pomegranates.
One of the stylistic elements in her paintings is the depiction of animals. For this new series, she sought out the right creatures from the wild to help convey what she was living through physically.
Though Adkins has lived with endometriosis and its awful effects for decades, she wasn’t very public about it, nor did she often address it in her paintings. Not until a couple of years ago, when her illness took a bad turn.
“I had read this article about a scientist who did some research on how crows communicate. He went into an animal park wearing a mask and carrying a dead crow,” she says. “All the crows reacted immediately.” When other crows saw the masked stranger, they reacted violently, plunging toward him, trying to attack. The crows also chattered loudly among themselves. She says the scientist then returned to the same murder of crows a few days later wearing the mask, and they had the same reaction. “They remembered him,” she says, “and they knew he was a danger to them.”
The next time he returned, it was more than a year later. But the same crows and even their offspring remembered him. It was as if the older generations were passing down their knowledge through storytelling. “It was like they were saying, ‘Danger! Danger!’”
Adkins correlates this communication and the habit of the crows chattering to a community she’s recently become active in – women who are living with the pain, surgery and other effects of endometriosis, and sharing their experiences online.
“Each painting is a diaristic allegory of a moment in my continued journey with a debilitating, chronic, under-researched and incurable disease known as endometriosis,” she says in a statement on Facebook. In the past couple of years, she started to find other artists living with “endo,” like Mab Graves and Ellie Kammer, on Instagram.
The crows in Adkins’ new paintings have more than one meaning, she says. Yes, a group of them visiting her body while she’s recovering in the hospital can represent the women chatting online, but for many people, crows are ominous creatures that inspire terror. In this way, crows could also represent the disease itself.
Adkins also incorporates imagery from the desert in much of her work. Cacti with their threatening thorns seem to linger, and the unpainted areas on the wood panels suggest desert sunsets and sandy places. Several of the images include pomegranates, and their blood-red inner fruit is suggestive of the female erogenous zones and reproductive interiors.
Adkins is using the juice of the pomegranate in a creative and new way, too. Her opening will not only show around twenty paintings but will also contain two installation works and a video. One of the installations is composed of a familiar desert plant, the devil’s claw, or Proboscidea, with a long chain of what looks like soft cotton dangling from its interior. Proboscidea are well known for the fact that, after flowering, their dried husks fall off and have a way of “clawing” onto animals, birds or even people, and “traveling” to other fertile fields. Eventually they fall open and release their seeds.
The cottony-looking material in Adkins’ installation is actually the innards of several tampons that she unraveled by hand. On closer inspection, it is eerie to see that this isn’t natural cotton at all, but instead appears to be an artificially produced, inorganic material that doesn’t look soft. At the bottom of the fibrous material, Adkins has attached one of the devil’s claw seeds, to represent ovulation.
Ten of these unraveled seedpods appear together. However, one of them is different. Going back to the pomegranate juice, Adkins has soaked one of the unraveled “cotton” tails in the juice. The bloodied one stands out among the set to represent the fact that statistically one in ten women will develop endometriosis in her lifetime.
“It affects six million women [in the U.S.], but they’ve been using that number for years,” Adkins says. “I’m sure there’s actually more. It can take a woman up to ten years to get a correct diagnosis.”
For Adkins, it took her six years to discover what was the cause of so many of her physical problems. She had known something was wrong ever since she was a teen. “But when you’re young, you don’t want to talk about your period,” she says. “It’s very taboo.” Even though she grew up in a family of six with almost all sisters, it was still too embarrassing to talk about. She says she remembers pain and extremely heavy bleeding. “I remember I’d bleed into my clothing and have accidents at school. I would have to go home and change my clothing.”
Then, in her twenties, it got worse. She says she began to ask doctors questions and seek more medical help. One doctor told her she had irritable bowel syndrome. Another told her she was simply more prone than most women to bladder infections. Another, a gynecologist, suggested she seek psychiatric help because it appeared to him that the manifestations of her pain might just all be in her head.
She finally visited a female gynecologist that a family member recommended. She doesn’t necessarily attribute the correct diagnosis to the fact that her new doctor was a woman. But this doctor did know what endometriosis was and also knew how to detect it. In Adkins’ case, she was correct.
“There is no blood test for this. There is only surgery to diagnose and treat it,” Adkins says. “That is what’s amazing about this disease: nothing has changed in the way they treat it in twenty years.” Adkins also says research into it is very underfunded. However, the Endometriosis Foundation of America claims that it affects around 200 million women worldwide.
“There are just as many people who have endometriosis as there are who have type 1 diabetes,” Adkins says. One of the startling facts about this disease is that, like cancer, its cells can multiply and spread throughout a woman’s body, attacking and attaching to other organs. It is not uncommon for the disease to invade one’s bowels, which did happen to Adkins.
Not only the challenges of her own personal experience but also the silence around the disease and lack of information prompted Adkins to get her message out. She joined a Facebook group called Endometriosis Awareness and began posting about her surgery experience. She defines her experience as horrible. Adkins says once she was in surgery, it was discovered that her case was much worse than anyone had expected. “It had damaged so many organs,” she says.
“I realized that my quality of life had gone down a lot. But I hadn’t realized all the things the disease was doing to me – that it could do all of those things to me.”
She went in for a partial hysterectomy, but doctors found that the endometriosis was up under her ribs. It had spread to her bowels and her diaphragm, which they had to remove a piece of. It was all over her uterus, so that had to be removed. It had also spread to her ovaries, and her ureter was damaged. A piece of her bladder was removed. Adkins had to go home with a catheter for two weeks and was in constant pain.
“While all of that was going on, I was still trying to paint about my experience,” she says. That was one year ago.
In March, Adkins underwent another surgery to remove her ovaries, and during the surgery there was a complication. Two days after going home, Adkins became violently ill and at one point was vomiting blood. During the surgery, the doctors had sliced open her ureter and placed a stint from her kidney to her bladder to keep things flowing. But the stint had slid down into the bladder, causing serious internal bleeding. Adkins was rushed back to the hospital, hooked up to IVs again and strapped to her hospital bed. She had to be put in a medically induced coma, and she received seven blood transfusions.
“When I briefly woke up from that surgery, I was intubated,” she says. “Basically, they had to put a breathing machine on me and tubes down my throat.”
“In one painting, I have this tube coming out of the crow and into a flower, and that is representative of the catheter that I had for two weeks,” Adkins says.
The difficulty for an artist of living in an ailing body may remind viewers of the work of Frida Kahlo. It is well known that Kahlo painted regularly throughout her illnesses and even when recovering from the partial amputation of her leg. Kahlo even devised a system of riggings and weights so she could lie in her sick bed and paint on a canvas suspended above her.
Adkins is not allowing her disease to keep her out of the studio, either. At times, she says, working on this series was therapeutic, even though the physical nature of painting can be exhausting.
Through her new network and community of women, Adkins even produced a short educational video where she sat down with several peers and invited them to share their experiences. She asked her “endo” friend June Lancer, a filmmaker, to help. The video will be on view at Adkins’ opening.
“Crow Speak: An Exhibit by Amanda Adkins”
Opens Friday, Sept. 7 at 6 p.m.
ArtHaus, 1501 N. Grand Ave.
Artist talk Sept. 21 at 6 p.m.
The artist has committed 10 percent of her sales to the Endometriosis Foundation.