Drawing on Illness

Artist Beth Frazer puts her body on display in PS2

For Beth Frazer, struggling with chronic pain and undiagnosed endometriosis, her photography was an essential part of her coping mechanism. Drawing on Illness, her new photography exhibition at PS2 is testimony to the reality of her experience.

‘It helped my family understand more,’ she explains, over a cup of hot chocolate piled high with cream. ‘I was still living at home then, but, although I was sick all the time, and they saw that, they didn’t realize how bad it was until I put into picture form how I was feeling and what I felt it was like. My Dad saw it and said “Oh, I’m going to get health insurance out for you".’

Frazer documented her entire experience with the process of diagnosis to recovery. Everything from prescriptions to hospital appointments are represented in the exhibition. Frazer even asked to see her personal medical records, but points out, with some indignation that she wasn’t allowed to copy them. ‘You aren’t allowed to take photos or even write anything down!’

That isn’t the only thing that exasperates Frazer about the NHS. She is still incredulous that it took two years of pain before the doctors diagnosed something as simple as endometriosis. The fact that a hospital has expressed interest in buying her entries in the the Royal Ulster Academy exhibition currently showing at the Ulster Museum tickles her funny bone and dismays her at the same time.

‘They're actually against the NHS,’ she says. ‘One piece is called ‘With Thanks to The NHS’, but it’s saying, “It’s your fault I’m like this". It’s being sarcastic.’ So far the hospital is the only institution to have shown an interest in buying Frazer’s photographs. It is a requirement of the RUA exhibition that all entries are for sale, but, says Frazer, 'it’s not the sort of work someone is going to hang on a wall in their home'.

She doesn’t seem phased by this. If anything, she seems a little relieved. Drawing on Illness is so unflinchingly honest and personal that it must be odd to think of it belonging to someone else. Frazer admits that it gives her pause sometimes. ‘At the beginning I was determined to make a point and the work had to be explicit to do that. But now I’m a little ‘ooo-errr’ that my body is up there for everyone to see.’

The RUA exhibition has been particularly odd for Frazer since she works at the Ulster Museum. She describes the process of her co-workers giving her feedback on the work as ‘a little cringe-worthy’.

For Frazer though it is worth it as long as she feels her work is helping people. She has gone to workshops at Northern Ireland Group of Art Therapists and would love to become an art therapist herself. Unfortunately there is only one course at Queen's and it only opens once every three years. Probably, she points out, because there aren’t so many jobs available in the field.

When she was sick the hospital didn’t offer art therapy to out-patients – even ones who have been there for two years. Frazer had to go through the process herself. ‘It’s not the way it should be done. But it worked for me.’

More importantly – artistically if not therapeutically – Drawing for Ilness works for the audience too. Something in it appeals not to their sympathy but to their own lives. Frazer points out that most people will have had some experience of the medical establishment at some time or another.

Yet, despite the cathartic nature of putting the exhibition together, Frazer admits that at this point in her recovery she wants to step away from it. ‘It’s gone full circle,’ she says. ‘It helped me, but now I’ve been working on it so long that it’s not helping me anymore.’

Not that Frazer intends to take a break with an unchallenging exhibition about puppies and flowers. Instead she is going to India with her husband to do a project about abandoned children there. It’s a subject that she is passionate about. ‘Using your talents to help get across something that will help people is good. That’s a big part of my life now.’

For now, however, her focus is still on the PS2 exhibition. She even invited some of her doctors and specialists to attend, but none of them did.

Drawing on Illness runs at PS2 until November 27.