Each month, we speak to a different artist about their work, life and inspirations. This month, we're delighted to introduce Lia Pas – an embroidery artist who captures the physical sensations of paresthesia to create soulful, beautiful, portraits of pain and the body.
How do you combine the senses in your embroidery and artwork?
I've been a multidisciplinary artist for many years and described my previous work as an exploration of sound, text, movement, and image. So in my performance-based work, all the senses were involved. I would be on stage or video, moving and singing and/or playing instruments, and there would often be video projections or large props as part of the piece.
For me as a performer, the work was very tactile in the way I used my body and my props and my musical instruments. For the audience, I think the experience was mostly sound and light with some physicality from the natural entrainment that happens when someone watches someone else move on stage.
I've come to love the sound of the needle popping through the stretched linen and the shhhh of the thread moving through
Since becoming suddenly ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) in 2015, my work has become all about tactility. When I first got ill I was hypersensitive to light, movement, and sound and couldn't read or write or even speak on my worst days. Once I was well enough to do something with my hands I took up embroidery, which is extremely slow and extremely tactile. I've come to love the sound of the needle popping through the stretched linen and the shhhh of the thread moving through.
I've been making two bodies of work, one of modified anatomical diagrams and one of my ME/CFS symptoms, which I've begun calling my symptomatology pieces. Most of the symptomatology work is based on my experiences of mylagia (muscle pain) and paresthesia (tingling).
What exactly is paresthesia?
Merriam-Webster defines paresthesia as 'a sensation of pricking, tingling, or creeping on the skin having no objective cause and usually associated with injury or irritation of a sensory nerve or nerve root.' In my case, after a nerve conduction study and an MRI, my paresthesia has no known cause. It's just one of the many symptoms of ME/CFS that is a sorely under-researched disease to the point where there is no agreed upon diagnostic criteria and no real medical treatment, just treatment of discrete symptoms and even that sometimes has no effect.
I still have paresthesia in my hands and tongue most days, and in my limbs, face, and chest on bad days
Initially, my entire body aside from my abdomen was tingling or in pain. The sensations ebbed and flowed throughout the day but were constantly there. Complete and absolute rest and menthol reduced the paresthesia to the point where I was able to partially function. My ME/CFS symptoms have improved immensely since 2015 but I still have paresthesia in my hands and tongue most days, and in my limbs, face, and chest on bad days.
Where did the idea to combine both come from?
I had mainly been embroidering anatomy diagrams and was loving the act of embroidery as a therapeutic way to do some creative work while resting. The idea of embroidering my ME/CFS symptoms came to me on a day when I was having extreme paresthesia.
I was doing a mindfulness meditation to help me psychologically deal with all the tingling in my body. As I separated out all the various sensations that made up the paresthesia, my mind's eye started seeing the lines of paresthesia as lines of embroidery. The first symptomatology paresthesia piece I did was of my hand covered in navy blue chain stitch with thin off-white backstitched lines amidst the thicker blue lines [cover photo]. I left a number of blue threads hanging off the wrist area to show that this sensation was not just in my hand.
The idea to embroider all my paresthesias and myalgias came from this first piece. I've done my feet, my tongue, and a couple body maps of all of my symptoms. As my symptoms change I get ideas for new symptomatology pieces.
What have you found most peculiar, transformative or interesting about doing this?
It's been transformative to hear how other people who have ME/CFS or paresthesia because of other reasons have been so ecstatic to see their symptoms visualised. Paresthesia isn't something you can see, so for most people who have never experienced it, including most medical professionals, it's just a word. With this work, people who have never experienced paresthesia have told me that the work makes them tingle and others have said that the work is both beautiful and horrifying, especially once they know what the lines on the body parts represent.
People who have never experienced paresthesia
have told me that the work makes them tingle
and others have said that the work
is both beautiful and horrifying
It's been interesting to continue to do this work as my ME/CFS symptoms lessen with time. The last symptomatology piece I completed was an attempt to show post-exertional malaisa (PEM), one of the major symptoms of ME/CFS, and one I struggle with daily.
PEM means that when you exert yourself physically or cognitively you crash. The energy-making system of the body is horribly broken. If I feel rested and then overexert myself it feels like the energy in my body just gets all mixed up and sinks to the ground. I titled this piece [below] 'neuraesthenia,' which is what ME/CFS used to be called. It shows a woman's lower legs, a tangle of orange/red lines and the bottom and blue and silver lines coming up from the soles of her feet. The blue and silver lines are extremely tangled in the shape of a brain and the lines droop down towards the ground.
For my next symptomatology piece, I'm going to go back to the paresthesia idea since that symptom acted up over the past couple of months again. My psychotherapist said that with this work I am offering 'exquisite attention' to my symptoms. The act of embroidering is restful for me, which is what my body needs, but paying such close attention to the physical sensations also makes them much more bearable for me. Instead of pain or tingling they become abstract and thereby much less distracting in my day to day.
The act of embroidering is restful for me,
which is what my body needs
What do you know about synaesthesia? Do you find it useful for your art?
I'm familiar with synaesthesia and experience it with my music, especially when I'm singing. I sense pitches as lines in space in front of me, which was extremely helpful when I was performing and teaching voice. Perhaps I also experience a kind of synaesthesia with my embroidery as well, since certain textures and stitches and colours evoke particular sensations for me.
Thick lines represent stronger sensations and thinner lines are more ephemeral sensations. Rope-like stitches are sensations I can palpate, and knots or dots are tingling sensations, often with delicate lines between them. Certain types of sensation have particular colours: extreme sensations are reds or yellows, dull sensations are purples or blues, moving sensations are more in the green or light blue spectrum.
What inspires you most?
I'm one of those people who constantly has ideas about new pieces all the time. It's just a matter of deciding what I'm going to follow through with. I do get obsessed with certain objects and shapes and ideas and riff off of those.
Extreme sensations are reds or yellows, dull sensations are purples or blues, moving sensations are more in the green or light blue spectrum
For a long time now, I've been inspired by old anatomy illustrations and texts. I have a number of books of these illustrations and some anatomical models in my studio. This probably comes from the fact that my mother is a scientist with degrees in physiology, hematology, and toxicology. I grew up around science books and still find science fascinating, though I never had an aptitude for it in school; I'd much rather freely experiment in the studio. I'm also very inspired by physical movement and sensation. Even before I got ill with ME/CFS, much of my work was about exploring different states of being.
In a strange way, much of my previous work as a multidisciplinary artist has greatly informed the embroidery work I'm doing. Even though I can only play the piano for a minute or two at a time, and cannot sing because it is too taxing on my system, and move very slowly and carefully, I feel like I'm still honouring my artistic vision. It's just that my media have changed.
Find out more: www.liapas.com
Follow Lia on Twitter and Instagram: @lia_pas