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Living with Ankylosing Spondylitis, an Artist's Journey


Living with Ankylosing Spondylitis

Growing up near the infamous Love Canal disaster in Niagara Falls, New York, I developed a strong social conscience early on. My artistic career began with a BFA from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1986 and an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 1992. With two New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowships under my belt, my work has been reviewed by prominent publications like ArtPapers and The New York Times and featured in American Artist.

But what shaped my art more than any accolade was a diagnosis of Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) at age 38. This autoimmune disease is characterized by chronic inflammation of the spine and other joints. Mild symptoms began in my mid-twenties, but AS crept into my life like a frog in cold water placed on a burner—insidiously, relentlessly.


The Impact on My Work and Life

In my mid-forties, my ankylosing spondylitis (AS) worsened, causing severe pain and stiffness that also affected my shoulders, elbows, and hands. From 2012 to 2014, the disease made me unable to continue my artistic work. After that challenging period, I turned my attention to creating figure drawings using pastels on paper and silverpoint, resulting in a significant body of work.

In 2020, with my pain escalating and the world grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, I paused my art again. This period of global uncertainty and personal struggle led me to reflect deeply on my goals and priorities. After much soul searching, I decided to attend graduate school to become a social work therapist, driven by a desire to help others navigate their own challenges. Currently, I work as a therapist with the Woodland Group, where I find satisfaction in supporting my clients. Alongside my journey as a psychotherapist, I am gradually returning to painting, rekindling my passion and creativity with each brushstroke.

Living with Ankylosing Spondylitis

Living with Ankylosing Spondylitis: A Perspective

Living with AS means not just managing pain and stiffness but also preserving quality of life. My daily routine involves easing morning stiffness, employing pain management techniques, and planning activities to balance rest and movement. I've had to give up many household DIY projects and gardening, but I've gained a deeper understanding of the human condition, which profoundly influences my art.

My dedication to figurative art, seen in both my past and current figure drawings and my multifigural compositions, reflects a deepening fascination with the human body and spirit. In my psychotherapy practice, I specialize in trauma, grief, loss, and the effects of chronic illness. This dual perspective as both an artist and a therapist enriches my work, offering a unique lens through which I explore themes of vulnerability and resilience.


The Evolution of My Art

Before AS profoundly affected my life, my art was rich with sociopolitical themes. A 1998 review in The New York Times described me as "determined to take America's [racing] pulse at the end of the century."

My figure drawings capture not just the external form but also the internal struggles and resilience of the human spirit, focusing keenly on the human condition. This artistic shift mirrors my personal journey—from external commentary to internal exploration. Although my hands may no longer move with the same ease, my mind has never been more engaged.

Living with Ankylosing Spondylitis

A New Chapter

Despite the limitations that AS imposes, it has also opened new avenues for me. My current role as a psychotherapist allows me to connect with people on a deeply personal level, offering them support and understanding that goes beyond words. This experience feeds back into my art, making it richer and more nuanced.

The intersection of art and therapy in my life illustrates the power of resilience and adaptation. It shows that while chronic illness can take away certain abilities, it can also offer new perspectives and opportunities for growth.


Conclusion

Living with Ankylosing Spondylitis has undeniably changed my life and work. It's taught me the importance of resilience, the value of perspective, and the power of adaptation. My disease fostered psychological flexibility and taught me to hold my values and ambitions lightly. If you’re dealing with chronic illness or any life-altering condition, know that while some doors may close, others will open—sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

Feel free to reach out if you want to learn more about my work or discuss how art and therapy intersect. Let's turn our challenges into opportunities for growth and expression.

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Thank you for joining me on this journey. Together, let's continue to find beauty and meaning in every moment.

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Martin Beck

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