When she was seven years old, artist Lindsay Obermeyer almost died. She had stomach cramps for a month, and then her godmother noticed a lump on her back. The next day an aunt became concerned because Obermeyer wasn't eating. She was taken to the hospital and, after a series of tests, the lump was diagnosed as Wilms' tumor--kidney cancer.
"It weighed five pounds when they removed it, one-tenth my body weight," she says. Radiation and chemotherapy followed, with devastating side effects. "My hair completely fell out, and I couldn't eat--it would all come back up. A month or two after the surgery I went outside and tried to run and I just fell down. It was terrifying. I was an athlete, played soccer, ran, rode my bike all the time and now I couldn't run; this was the first time I realized what had happened to my body." The doctors had given her a 1 percent chance of survival.
Obermeyer, now 29, miraculously beat the odds, but also speaks of how damaging doctors'--and society's--responses to illness can be. She remembers liking some of her doctors--the ones who listened, answered her questions, let her watch what they were doing--but others, she recalls, showed an extreme lack of sensitivity. One doctor always "pushed me down by my shoulders to lay me down while he gave me my injection. I said, 'I'd like to see what you're doing,' and he kept pushing me down." Another night an IV tube slipped and she woke up in the middle of the night to find her hand completely swollen. Later a doctor told her that if the nurse hadn't acted quickly her hand would have had to have been amputated. Being told this at seven--"when your hand is in extreme pain and you're freaked out because it's your hand that you use to draw with, and you've just been spending your free time in the hospital coloring and you can't color anymore because you can't hold a pen"--only amplified her fears.
Once out of the hospital, Obermeyer says she "felt like a freak." She was very thin and pasty, had scars on her abdomen, and wore a wig. "Strangers would come up to me and say, 'Oh my God! You look like you've been in a concentration camp!'...Every time somebody could see the illness in me it frightened them, and they wanted me to console them, to make their fear go away."
These reactions made her feel abnormal, though she now can see that her body was responding naturally to a serious illness. "There is no normal," she says. "That is one falsehood of medicine. As they try to generate statistics on how the body works, there's always this last 1 percent that they forget." Obermeyer still receives form letters from a group studying Wilms' patients, "asking me is my penis size normal, or do I have a normal breast size, are my periods normal." These letters address her only by patient number. "I would like to be respected for who I am; I'm not a statistic." Throughout her childhood, "I was being negated of my humanness--being reduced to a kidney, or the lack of a kidney."
People were constantly commenting on her looks, assessing her appearance. An agent who claimed to be representing a major modeling agency saw her in a department store "with my hair cropped really really short. It was when my hair was just starting to grow back. They thought it was the most stunning look they'd ever seen, asked my mother if I would consider being a model, and wanted to fly me out to New York City." She didn't go.
Obermeyer's artistic interests were encouraged from the beginning. Her mom and aunt painted storybook figures --"Cinderella, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck"--in the hallway outside her childhood bedroom, and by seven she could draw, sew, and needlepoint. A year after her surgery she and a friend started the Ladybug Cartoon Club. "We did Claymation cartoon films. We built forts. We were building sculptures"--cement slabs with imprints of their hands--"and leaving them out all over the neighborhood." An interest in biology and taxidermy followed her illness. She sees taxidermy as "taking a dead thing and trying to make it alive." The Ladybug Cartoon Club foraged their Saint Louis suburb for roadkill. "We stuffed several possums, a raccoon, a squirrel. We had a museum in the basement of somebody's house; you had to pay a nickel to get in."
As an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute she became a fiber artist; a few years ago, as she was entering graduate school in Seattle, a doctor found a tumor on her thyroid. It had to come out, bringing back her old memories. There were new encounters with doctors. "When I went into my last aspiration, where they inject a long needle into your neck and take fluid out of your thyroid to do a biopsy, I was sitting there looking at my doctor, and he said, 'Close your eyes. It's sort of creepy with you watching me.' What I ran into consistently was their own hang-ups being projected onto the patient."
Obermeyer ended up moving back to Chicago and now owns the Weaving Workshop on Lincoln Avenue. Her artwork became increasingly concerned with her body. "I keep using my own image in my work because I'm trying to figure out where it's coming from, where the normal is, how I fit in." These concerns are reflected in her current exhibit at Artemisia Gallery, "The Anatomy Lesson: A Study in Medical Ethics." Half of the 18 works include used hospital linens.
Areas of the pillowcase in Remembrance are stained with blood. "An IV solution or something has dropped on it because you can see where salt has stopped the blood from staining the linen," she says. She's outlined the blood with red stitching. "I was trying to pull back what they tried to wash out by tracing around the edges of it." In Sight Unseen a tiny snapshot of her is surrounded by brightly colored red and blue beads in a pattern taken from pictures of cell structures. "Most people notice the beads first. People are noticing cells, and that's what the doctors notice first; that's how you're reduced to something very small."
Clinical Diagnosis: Wilms' Tumor has her imprint on a child-size linen. She had the linen rubbed on top of her painted nude body; it made sense for her to be nude, she says, "because you're not really given a choice to stay clothed in the hospital." Obermeyer handwrote memories
of her childhood illness all the way down the cloth and then machine stitched text from her hospital records on top, covering over her own version of events. "I've made this body of work to constantly try to put my story back out."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnell, Lindsay Obermeyer.