“I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.”
Sometimes reality can be a lot stranger than nightmares. Sometimes art can mirror life, often without our consent or knowledge. I had no idea how tightly Frida Kahlo’s colourful legacy had woven itself into my subconscious until I was profoundly shocked at how my life was indeed, mirroring Frida’s in miniature as well as my own artistic past.
This is a picture of me wearing a costume I designed which aims to make visible my invisible neuropathic pain. This costume is splashed across our media remorselessly. Partly due to how very human and accessible a wearable costume is, but also because the physical item was gifted to us as a surprise by my Long term colleague Lucy Wilkinson. We were thrilled to receive it! Before pain forced me to stop working, I was a set and costume designer for Theatre. I worked many times with Lucy on exciting projects large and small. Our professional relationship was incredibly rewarding. We had developed an artistic language in which I was able to understand her vision without her having to explain. When Lucy surprised us in realising the costume, I was understandably touched.
As a costume designer, it seemed natural to me to create a wearable form of my pain. Alice and I had agreed from the start that we were to reimagine the aesthetic of pain. No twisted limbs or barbed wire for us! We wanted to create and curate art of beauty and empowerment. I chose bold red lace not just as an indicator of pain but as a dual symbol of female fragility and resistance. A costume of my pain had to demonstrate how strong you have to be in order to bear it daily and fight to be believed. This process is nonetheless transformative, pain slowly changes a person like water runs through rock. My costume is based on a restrictive corset which has obvious connotations. For a long time I was restricted in the movements of my upper chest, even in breathing. A corset is a beautiful item of clothing, yet it moulds the body into something smaller, with less breath. Less voice?
When tidying a cupboard of old work, I came across some files from my Masters Degree in Scenography. The sketches and photographs I found send shivers up my spine. Sketches drawn in haste with copious notes surrounding the messy little drawings show my younger self working out how to design a corset that artistically embodies and displays chronic pain. I couldn’t believe it. We were lucky at the University of Kent that we were thrown in the deep end in realising our first real theatre set in the first few months of the course. I was excited to be designing La Casa Azul (The Blue House) a Play by Sophie Faucher based on the life and writings of Frida Kahlo.
Born in 1907, having already suffered through polio, at aged 18 Frida suffered a huge accident. A catastrophic bus crash caused her to undergo over 30 operations. Her spine was severed in three places, her pelvis shattered and a steel handrail pierced her body completely, entering her stomach and rupturing her uterus. The consequences of this accident had a huge affect on the rest of her life.
“My painting carries with it the message of pain.”
Frida spent the rest of the life in pain, self medicating with pain killers and alcohol. She had to spent a lot of time in bed and alone. Strapped into a body plaster, her own body becoming not only the focus but a tool of her artistic expression. La Casa Azul was a pas deux of sorts between Frida and the character of Death. Both her pain and vivacious joy needed to be expressed fully.
One important aspect I had to design was what we referred to as her “pain corset” during a big reveal moment. The corset was to play a large visual part in expressing Frida’s pain as well as feminine strength. I drew much inspiration from her iconic portrait The Broken Column.
Looking back at those sketches for the pain corset that day, I was struck by the sheer weight of time. Not just the path of experience as an artist I had walked since my time as a student, which seemed to have folded in this perfect coincidence. I also felt a connection to history, to Frida. I had plunged myself into researching her life and art so as not to let Tawny my director, down. Of South American decent herself and a staunch Kahlo fan! Frida Kahlo’s art deeply affected me as a 22 year old student, but I hadn’t realised how distanced I was from the truth of the artists message.
Looking again at The Broken Column portrait I had then studied, sketched and reconstructed in Lycra for the stage, I could feel Frida’s gaze fully on me, her slightly turned knowing face transformed into something so familiar. Once that look seemed challenging, distant. Now her eyes say unreservedly; “I understand!”
I didn’t make the connection at the time when I started drawing my own pain corset. I had forgotten the process and the stressful times during my Masters degree but I kept Frida! It was reported by Alejandro Gomez Arias who was travelling on the bus with Kahlo at the time, that a fellow passenger was carrying a bag of powdered gold paint. Frida’s body was showered in gold as she lay in the ruins of the tram and her own body. Witnesses started shouting ‘La bailarina, la bailarina,’ thinking she was a dancer, covered in the gold paint, mixed with red blood.
Looking at the iridescent blue beads and golden threads Lucy painstakenly added to the neckline of this costume, I’m slightly reminded of a glamourised version of the pins sticking into naked flesh in Frida’s famous painting above. However, when I found I couldn’t stop designing costumes relating to friend’s and colleague’s experiences of pain, all costumes had one striking feature in common. I had a series of figures in various states of completion and frenzied colour, yet they were all smattered with gold or copper at key pain sites. Had I subconsciously been recreating little bailarina’s of my own? I really don’t think so, but Frida’s presence was there. The golden threads of her legacy had woven their way tightly around my subconscious. Her words and probing glances give me strength as I’m sure they do many women for many different reasons.
“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”
I’m not the best artist, I freely admit that, especially when drawing through cramped muscles. Costume drawings serve a purpose, the final costume has always produced remarkable responses from our Something Chronic Audiences, especially up close. We remember Frida Kahlo at Something Chronic. We admire her revolutionary spirit and her determination to live creatively and more fully than most could dream of despite her obvious restrictions. Kahlo often changed her date of birth in order to coincide with the Mexican revolution, her Art mostly being undeniably political. The pain struggle itself is our politics, but what are Chronic pain warriors if not revolutionaries? We have to fight daily against the tide of medical and public opinion simply to be understood.
“pain, pleasure and death are no more than a process for existence. The revolutionary struggle in this process is a doorway open to intelligence”
Our work at Something Chronic will hopefully help people feel less alone. Our Art, hopefully sheds light on something hidden. I certainly now, feel a little less alone. Frida walks with me silently yet as loudly as the bright red lipstick I refuse to stop wearing, especially on the most painful of days. Just like Frida!
- The Diary of Frida Kahlo An Intimate Self Portrait Introduction by Carlos Fuentes. Essay and commentaries by Sarah. M. Lowe. Abrams, New York, in association with La Vaca Indepeniense S.A de C.V. ©1995Banco de Mexico
- la Case Azul. Inspired by the writings of Frida Kahlo. Sophie Faucher. Translated by Neil Bartlet. Translated by Oberon books Ltd 2002.
- Frida Kahlo. Living Art series. Claudia Bauer. Prestel 2014
- All Quotes: Frida Kahlo, Taken from fridakahlocorporation.com and www.fridakahlo.org
- Tawny Cortes. My extremely talented Director for La Casa Azul at University. She is now a Yoga instructor.Find her at www.tawnycortesyoga.com (read the about section!)
- Lucy Wilkinson. Set and Costume Designer and teacher. Associate designer with Jericho House. www.jerichohouse.org.uk. It has been the highlight of my career to assist Lucy on a number of this company’s beautiful and socially important works.