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Scar stories: Ted Meyer translates illness into art

Artist Ted Meyer told me he doesn't mind that for decades he lived with a painful, deadly disease. The nationally recognized painter was born with Gaucher disease, an enzyme deficiency that causes problems throughout the body — including anemia, bone pain and fractures, bruising, enlargement of the liver and spleen, and fatigue. For Meyer, now 59, it meant a lot of anguish, both physical and psychological.

So why didn't he mind? Because his pain was his muse. He became an artist, making a name for himself as an interpreter of illness. And when in his 30s a new treatment banished his suffering, he was relieved but also disturbed.

As he explained in an interview for an article for Inside Stanford Medicine:

All of a sudden, everything that had been the motivation for my artwork disappeared. I wasn’t in pain or fatigued. I wasn’t worried about dying young.

Meyer, who'll be lecturing and leading workshops at Stanford this week, soon found a new direction, though: telling visual stories of people who have survived accidents and health crises.

He began his ongoing project "Scarred for Life: Mono-prints of Human Scars," which pairs his photographs of people revealing their scars with prints he made from those scars. The image above, for example, depicts a leg damaged by a suicide bomber. The images have been exhibited internationally in galleries, hospitals and museums.

Meyer has also begun sharing his message with medical students, first as the artist in residence at the Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and now at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, where he brings artists with chronic illnesses to exhibit their work and meet with students. His aim is to round out the medical profession’s view of patients’ lives. He's at Stanford this week as this year’s Sterling Visiting Professor in the Department of Chemical & Systems Biology.

"If I wasn’t sick I probably would have been a graphic designer for the last 40 years — which is what I did right out of college. Life would have been a lot more boring," Meyer said. "I wouldn't have met as many interesting people. I wouldn’t be coming to Stanford. I wouldn’t have done anything to help people."

The talks and workshops at Stanford this week are open to the public.

Previously: Sculptor Alyson Shotz explores the relationship between art and science at Stanford, “It renewed my energy”: A look at medical students using art to contribute to medicine and "Deconstructed pain:" Medicine meets fine arts.
Images courtesy of Ted Meyer

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