Posts in Healing Art Archive
The intersection of art, science, neurotechnology, and disease
celebration, solar etching, 2010 (angiogram of mark-s brain).jpg
valentine, solar etching, 2010 (coronal view of the brain stem, cerebellum, and lateral ventricles).jpg
neuroplasticity (digital collage of hand-pulled prints and mris of my brain).jpg
emerging, solar etching, 2009 (coronal view of the neo-cortex).jpg

I am an artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area who specializes in the intersection of art and science. I focus on brain scans, particularly MRIs, because I consider them one of the primary symbols of Multiple Sclerosis. Since my diagnosis of MS, I have continually undergone brain scans to track the progression of my disease. Initially the sterile black and white images of the MRIs of my brain were terrifying, and I refused to look at them. I began using my art practice to reinterpret these frightening yet mesmerizing images. I seek to disrupt the unsightliness of these digital images, inviting the viewers to stare directly at the beauty and complexity of the imperfect brain.

My diagnosis has allowed me to integrate neurotechnology into my artwork. Through printmaking, mixed media, and textiles I transform my scan into vibrant landscapes in hopes of challenging how society views illness. I create with the intent of transforming how people view the imperfect body, allowing room for celebration, curiosity, and fascination.

My artwork has been displayed in permanent collection at various institutions, universities, and hospitals throughout the country. My heart remains rooted in the narrative of illness. I am now trying my hand at art and design in the clinical setting.

I have been inspired by the power artwork can have to broaden and deepen the narrative around chronic illness. This is the core of my mission, to create artwork that encourages social engagement and spurs conversations. My vision for several upcoming projects combines patient—centered design strategies, evocative artwork, and powerful narratives. I am currently exploring how art, storytelling and technology can be used to revolutionize the untapped potential of time spent in waiting rooms of clinics.

At some point in our lives, we all become patients and are challenged with accepting illness as a part of being human. Chronic disease is an ongoing natural disaster of the body, where the tsunami is a never-ending undulation of change. This disaster leaves in its wake a real sense of fear, isolation and heightened awareness of the fragility of one's body. Many illnesses that are depicted in the media have a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end—a flowing arc to the story. But most illnesses, especially those that are chronic, lack an arc or even a narrative that makes sense to the outsider. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming, lonely, or diminishing. I create with the intent to transform this experience and use a medium that fosters connections and conversation. In doing so I aim to open up people’s eyes to see the unique perspectives gained through living with disease.

Behind Locked Doors
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When people look at my poster, their most frequent response is, “Wow! How can I get my own records? I have always wanted to have mine!” I tell them, “Just do it! And be persistent. Even if the contents turn out to be upsetting, I doubt you will ever be sorry.”

This is the story behind how I finally received mine and what I did with them.

I had been wishing to get my hospital records for a very long time. I felt deeply that they belonged to me as they were words written about me during a hellish three-year period in my adolescence. I was certain that they would be filled with outrageous statements, and I desperately wanted to read and respond to them someday.

I was finally released from the last hospital in 1963, and it wasn't until 1978 that I began my search in earnest. During the intervening years, I had been finishing college, marrying, and raising four young children. Although I managed to keep all of those hospital experiences safely compartmentalized away so I could raise my children with warmth and kindness, believe me, the retrieval of my records was never far from the surface.

In early 1978, shortly after meeting my fantastic fellow comrades (Judi Chamberlin, Dan Fisher and David Oaks), I was inspired to start by politely writing to the directors of each of the four different hospitals where I had been locked up: Baldpate Hospital in MA, The Menninger Clinic in KS, Massachusetts Mental Health Center in MA, and Westborough State Hospital in MA. Weeks went by, and I heard nothing. I wrote again. I waited. Again, I got no response. I even considered flying to Topeka, Kansas, to storm that psychiatric barricade and demand my records in person.

Since I was then a single parent with four young children and dwindling finances, I calmed myself and talked it all over with my trusted and dear therapist, Lee. He had saved my life back in 1963 when, by chance, I first met him the night before I was sent to Westborough. He was a young resident and the only person during those three years who had looked me in the eye and smiled and was genuinely kind. He gave me hope. He told me there was nothing the matter with me that had not been caused by the abuses in the hospitals: combined insulin/ECT without anesthesia, seclusion, restraints, molestation, masses of Thorazine, etc.

After meeting with Lee from time to time over the years, in 1978, after my failed letter-writing campaign, we planned a new record-seeking strategy. He wrote to all four hospital directors. It was difficult for me to give the power over to him, but he seemed to be my last, best hope. In 1975, he had become the Commissioner of Mental Health in MA so he clearly had the power, which I was sadly lacking, and he generously used it to help me. Because of his status and powerful stationery, he heard back from everyone except Baldpate. Some of them were only a few pages of summaries, which was annoying, but when he received them he gave them to me.

Finally, during the spring of 1978, since Baldpate had ignored him, Lee made an appointment for us to drive out there.  He told them he wanted us to read the records together, and, since he had been the commissioner, I am sure they felt forced to let us come. I had been talking for months about wanting to steal my records so, on the drive out, I showed Lee that I had brought a briefcase and explained that I had every intention of stealing the pages. I wasn't sure how I would manage it, but I knew I could figure it out once there.

I still remember the day as if it were yesterday. It was a bright blue, sunny day, the trees and flowers were in full bloom, and I was feeling full of hope and confidence. When we arrived at this desolate location in the country an hour outside of Boston, it was a time-travel experience for me. I had not been there since 1961, and the big red "farmhouse" still remained, looming over the grounds. We were ushered into a small office, far from the desolate cinder-block unit where I had been subjected to the combined insulin/ECT. There were two chairs and a little table between us where the thick folder with my records sat—my huge and seemingly glowing hidden treasure! We were at first left alone together to read them, and we decided that I should start reading and then pass each page to Lee. Soon, however, every few minutes an official would nervously interrupt us by opening the door and asking if we wanted more coffee. The records were filled with atrocious, labeling and demeaning words about me, even more disgusting than I had ever anticipated. And, with growing intensity, I wanted to steal every single page from that house of horrors and report the atrocities all over the world.

Finally, after more than two hours of reading, Lee and I had a conversation about how hard they were making it for me to actually commit my theft. He said he wanted to go to the bathroom and told me to feel completely free to do whatever I wished with the papers while he was out of the room. What an advocate he was! But, at that moment I was overcome by his genuine generosity and kindness and fully aware that he might get into serious trouble if I were to steal the entire record. I simply didn't feel I could put him at risk, so when he returned from the bathroom I explained that I had slipped every other page into my briefcase. I paid special attention to picking the most egregious ones, making sure to leave enough bulk so they would not notice, and they didn’t.  We drove back to Boston. I was elated, and Lee was the good sport and true advocate that he had been for so long.

I spent many hours and weeks and months reading the pages over and over, trying to make sense of every notation, every diagnosis. Finally, I bought a box, decorated it with flowered paper, arranged the pages neatly inside, and tied it up with a pale blue satin ribbon.  I kept it on the top shelf of my bedroom closet, where it stayed for years—until October 11, 1991!

That was the date that Anita Hill was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in reference to the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. She claimed he had made unwelcome sexually provocative comments to her when they worked together at the Department of Education and the EEOC.  I believed her! Anita was treated dismissively and poorly by the senators, and her treatment put me into high action. I went to my closet, took down my hospital records and proceeded to go through every single page with a fine-tooth comb. The next day, I took the pages and copied them all several times. I then cut out the pertinent, disgusting and demeaning comments and assembled them all on a huge poster board, which I had laid out on my bed.  I designed it using the typed comments, photos from my childhood, and several small sections from op-ed stories I had written which had been published in newspapers.  It took several days of moving the pieces around until I felt completely satisfied. I then shopped around and found a great radical union press, which was willing to print 1,000 copies, way back before digital. The folks at Red Sun Press in Jamaica Plain, MA, were wonderful! I felt respected, they took my poster seriously, and I was thrilled!

I then began showing, selling and giving it away at conferences.  A dear and close fellow comrade bought the first twenty copies in a true gesture of solidarity and generosity.  It was finally registered with the U.S. Copyright Office on April 25, 2007.  I mailed one to The Museum of Modern Art in New York City as someone had once told me that they keep all art which is given to them. I sent a letter of explanation, asking them to consider having a show of art by people who had been locked up in mental institutions, and they acknowledged receiving it.  A framed copy hangs in the history exhibit at SAMHSA.  I gave one to my internal medicine doctor who just recently told me that it hangs on the back of her office door. She is now a dean at Harvard Medical School so perhaps it is having a positive influence on future doctors there. Two years ago, I had three large fabric, plastic-laminated copies made for using at marches and demonstrations. One of them now hangs in the office of Digital Eyes Film.

In the end, this poster has given me a great deal of satisfaction. I feel it is my personal megaphone from the top of the Empire State Building, shouting out to the world: THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED TO ME and THIS MUST STOP!!!

Dorothy Dundas was institutionalized for three years as an adolescent in the 1960s and was labeled a “schizophrenic” and forced to undergo 40 combined insulin coma/electroshock “treatments.” She experienced and witnessed many atrocities. She believes that luck, determination, her own anger and one compassionate advocate were her best friends on the road to her ultimate survival and freedom. Through a number of op-ed pieces in The Boston Globe, Miami Herald and Detroit Free Press, she has voiced her opposition to abusive psychiatric practices. This poster, Behind Locked Doors, which she created from her hospital records, has been  used in training programs. Dorothy lives in the Boston area where she has raised four wonderful children. She has recently retired from The Crystal Lake Express - her own safe, friendly and reliable car service in which she was the sole driver for 30 years. Dorothy is also a blogger on Mad in America: Finding Resilience and Hope in the Face of Despair.

Sick, not silent
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just in case.jpg
adjusted schedule.jpg

Sick, not silent: A conversation about cancer through art

Sculptor

Dennis@DennisSvoronos.com

DennisSvoronos.com

In September of 2009—at 26 years of age—I was diagnosed with cancer, after experiencing the first of many seizures to come. Of all the trials I could imagine that lay ahead, I never thought most of them would be exercises in recollection.

Patient name? Dennis Svoronos (thankfully I can always get this one)

Date of birth? 3/8/83 (a palindrome, helps to keep it easy)

Occupation? Artist (maybe not my parents first choice)

Approximate date of last surgery? 11/09 (Who forgets their first brain surgery)

Existing medical conditions? Anaplastic Astrocytoma (a cancerous brain tumor)

Repeat daily, for years.

As time progressed; I remember those waiting rooms, questions and ID tags much more than the operating theatre and injections; trauma is kind like that.

However, they made me feel intrinsically linked to my disease. What was I, without these suffixes of sickness to identify with? Somehow, all my other unique and admirable qualities were set-aside for the identifier of ‘cancer patient’. It’s easy to resign to the belief that those forms and wristbands define your life, mere statistics, data—you and your cancer. Just as painless, is to ignore the process completely, pretending your exams and operations are the bad dreams of another person, your ‘real life’ goes on unaffected.

Either way, it seems you’re not to talk openly about cancer, and it is difficult for most; patients, family and doctors alike. My initial sense was, it would be easier for me—and more comfortable for others—to keep off the topic. Sickness is a surprisingly taboo subject in a very liberal culture.

The artist in me, however, couldn’t stop questioning why we hide from the discussion. Over the course of my treatment and the years to follow, the entirety of my work became a continuous, very uncomfortable, conversation about my disease with anyone that would listen.

In doing so, I freed myself from the fear and shame that I felt initially upon my diagnosis. It allowed me to speak honestly to an audience on an issue I was passionate about, to relate to others on a level beyond the initial stigma of sickness. I became a proud patient. My work wasn’t about the ‘battle’, ‘fight’ or being a ‘survivor’; the words of conflict I was trying to avoid. The art became focused on the subtle, sincere and even sarcastic aspects of the life-changing experience I was going through. I wasn’t interested in discussing my struggle with cancer; I wanted to embrace the insight it gave me.

In January of 2014, I exhibited a solo show of this work at the Boston Sculptors Gallery (486 Harrison Ave. Boston). In the month that followed, I was able to engage with patients and the public in ways I was never able to before. My show became a safe space for anyone to talk about this difficult subject. In doing so, stories were shared, wisdom was gained and many tears—of joy and woe—were shed. To all who came, I sought to impart a sense of community and empathy they didn’t enter with. I learned, as a patient I need to speak about my experience with the ‘healthy’ world, regardless of stigma or discrimination. My ultimate healing came through delightful conversations about a horrible problem.

Dennis Svoronos: Biography

Dennis Svoronos’ work exists between art and engineering; it is inspired by the modern world in motion. He uses his sculpture to reflect this environment charged with electricity, spectacle and information. He uses our common language of the 21st century: electronics, robotics and interactive kinetics, to build connections between the viewers and the work. In a society fractured by technology, Dennis Svoronos uses it to bring us together. At current, he is making work in response to his recent diagnosis of brain cancer, seeking to use his art as a platform to question sickness, wellness and recovery.

Dennis Svoronos is a Boston-based sculptor whose work has been shown nationally and internationally. He holds a diploma from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a Bachelors of Fine Arts from Tufts University. His work has been exhibited at numerous institutions and galleries such as the MFA, Boston; the Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, FL; G.A.S.P Brookline, MA; and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Lake Worth, FL. Svoronos has also been the recipient of numerous awards and public work commissions. Currently, he is living and working in South Boston.