Lidwina was a young Dutch girl living in what is now known as the Netherlands in the late 1300s when she suffered a fall and broke a rib while ice-skating. Though she never fully recovered, historians now theorize Lidwina suffered from multiple sclerosis. She is now a canonized saint.
Both a photographer and fiber artist, Sheila Talbitzer took inspiration from the life of this saint, finding parallels with her own MS diagnosis, while honoring the legacy of Lidwina in her current solo-exhibition at Metropolitan Community College’s Gallery of Art and Design, titled Lidwina: Years 1-4. Quilts, embroideries, and photographs themed around the topic of domestic space fill the gallery and reference the artist’s personal history.
“The work in the series Lidwina is not intended to be an education about the disease itself. That information is easily accessible at the library,” she writes in her artist statement. “Instead, it is a visual representation of the things I think about since my diagnosis. The things I obsess about.”
Talbtizer’s fiber works evade being metaphorical and outright display MRI images of the artist’s brain. In fact, prior to her diagnosis, Talbitzer was strictly a photographer using fabric as backdrop material, which she later used to develop a quilting and embroidery practice. These two distinct techniques merged as medical prints on fabric decorated with delicate floral and leaf patterns.
She recalls an appointment to review her MRI scans, writing “of course, the prospect of learning precisely how sick I was frightened me. But, as a photographer, I was thrilled at seeing real pictures of my brain. I left that appointment disappointed. My disease was not mild, and my brain was visually… unexceptional.
“After some research and a lot of trial and error I successfully printed one of my MRI images onto fabric using my photographic inkjet printer. If my brain was not visually special on its own, I was going to make it special by embroidering flowers around it.”
One such work titled Trigeminal, a suspended quilt embroidered with dainty pink flowers and Art Nouveau-esque vines and leaves, displays five printed scans of the artist’s brain. At the center top, right, bottom and left are overhead cross-sections printed in black and white, all encircled in a green ring.
At the very center of the composition is a side-profile of the artist rendered in such detail that viewers can make out here eyebrows and strands of disheveled hair. What makes this profile distinct from the other scans is Talbitzer highlighted sections of her nervous system with pink embroidery made to look like veins. Symmetry is of the utmost importance with this quilt, with repeating floral patterns on the central axis.
One of the most obvious connections to art history is that of the Feminist Art Movement with the use of traditional craft generally considered to be “women’s work” and the unapologetic use of florals. When I asked Talbitzer about this in an interview, she expressed an exuberant response: “Feminist Art? As a feminist and artist it would be hard to deny any influence!”
There are also visual references to OP Art, which was primarily a 20th century movement focused on optical phenomenon and illusions, particularly in the quilt “view0011.” The entire quilt is composed of black and white stripes organized in repeating triangles and squares. At the very center is a small-scale side-scan of the artist’s head and torso on a white backdrop. The optical play here is really only noticeable in person as you walk and see the dizzying composition.
“I generally find Op Art hard to experience. That was the point of this piece. I was looking through a batch of my MRI images and came across the image that is in the middle of that quilt. I was kind of horrified. I thought I looked like a monster… I wanted to convey that unease of seeing myself like that, so I made a quilt that was visually unsettling.”
Maybe it takes someone with an aversion to pattern to find this disquieting, but I find this piece to be among the most visually robust and interesting of her quilts with its high regard for symmetry and cohesion, as well as for its starkness and lack of embroidery in comparison to the other fiber works. Evoking this unpleasant and uncomfortable atmosphere is more successfully seen in her photographs, where viewers are presented with a domestic interior, flowers, and areas of the artist’s body that changed because of the disease.
Within this series, Talbitzer photographed 13 scenes and titled them “Contrast Enhanced.” She uses domestic space as a metaphor, with the home being her physical body. Each photograph has a flower where it does not belong as a stand-in for an active lesion in the artist’s brain. In “Contrast Enhanced 5,” we are presented with a hand extending through a small opening between doors holding a flower, which procures feelings of discomfort and fear. What lies beyond this door? Why is a hand presenting us a flower?
However you interpret her work, it’s hard not to consider how brave the artist is for being so open about her medical condition, something I can’t even do with my own loved ones.
And though we see the stark realties of having MS in this series, Talbtizer has an optimistic outlook about the future of this series.
“From my perspective, this series cannot have an end date since MS is chronic. Because I only make art about personal experience, I imagine I will keep mining this subject matter until I have nothing more to say about it.”
Lidwina: Years 1-4 runs through January 18, 2022 at Metropolitan Community College’s Gallery of Art and Design located on 829 N. 204th St., Elkhorn, NE 68022. Gallery hours are from Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, 9am – 7pm, Wednesday at 11am – 7pm, Friday 9am – 3pm.. For more information, visit https://www.mccneb.edu/gallery.