Health

Painting Helps Artist Lydia Emily Deal With MS

From ‘Awesome’ Shoulder Pain and a Numb Tongue to an MS Diagnosis

Lydia Emily had just come out of a two-year battle with clear-cell carcinoma — believed to be caused by exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), or synthetic estrogen, in utero, per the American Cancer Society — when she got more news that would change her life.

“I had just finished chemotherapy and I was pronounced cancer-free,” she recalls.

Ever the workaholic, she traveled to Northern California from her home in Los Angeles to start a mural project on a freeway in the Bay Area. When she reached up to pull down a ladder that would enable her to climb up on a road sign support structure to begin work, she felt a “tear” in her shoulder.

“People use the word ‘awesome’ incorrectly all the time,” she says with a chuckle. “Like, ‘This is awesome,’ meaning great. That’s not what it means. In this case, my pain was truly awesome. I was on my couch for a year, an inordinate amount of time for the injury I had sustained.”

When she woke up one morning and experienced numbness in her tongue, she thought she was having a stroke and immediately went to the emergency room. An MRI there revealed MS lesions on her brain and spinal cord.

From there, Lydia Emily’s MS symptoms progressed rapidly. She’s lost most of the vision in her left eye — she wears an eye patch — and walks with a cane (and occasionally uses a wheelchair) because of pain in her lower back and muscle weakness in her legs. She also admits to experiencing memory loss relating to her MS.

Still, the condition hasn’t slowed her down. If anything, just the opposite.

Painting Messages of Hope as an MS Ambassador

In addition to having an “amazing” husband, Lydia Emily is mother to two adult daughters, Dorothy, 22, and Coco, 20, the latter of whom has autism and “requires 24-hour care,” according to the artist.

“Being able to care for her has been a gift,” the 52-year-old says. “I’ve learned that it feels good to help others, and her strength inspires me to be strong for her. I’ve become a much more patient and tolerant person.”

And, she adds, a better artist. Since her diagnosis, Lydia Emily has painted murals in Los Angeles and Houston as well as in Portland, Oregon, and Louisville, Kentucky, designed to offer messages of hope for people with MS.

It’s this work that has led her to become an “ambassador” for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, one of the many personalities who use their name recognition to raise awareness and funds “for the MS movement.”

Since 2019, Lydia Emily has also served as the creative director for the MS On My Mind awareness campaign sponsored by the pharmaceutical company EMD Serono, maker of two MS disease-modifying drugs. The campaign seeks input from individuals on the effects of life with MS, which may be used as inspiration for artworks by Lydia Emily.

Speaking Out About Human Trafficking and More Through Visual Art

She continues to tackle other vitally important subjects as well. The artist is a survivor of rape herself, and human trafficking — particularly of young women forced into sex work — has long been an issue of significance for her; much of her work calls attention to victims’ suffering and advocates for their rights.

In addition, Lydia Emily is the subject of a documentary film titled The Art of Rebellion, produced by Bluprint Films and directed by Libby Spears.

“Visual artists do have a platform where we can be outspoken, while the public tends to react negatively when an actor or singer speaks out,” she says. “I always say, ‘Art can do more than just hang. It can help.’ I don’t show all the paintings I do about my MS to the public, because I feel like the ones about pain and suffering might be difficult for some people to see. But painting them has helped me deal with those things. I feel lucky to be a painter. It keeps me fighting every day.”

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