A Canadian performance artist and musician, Lia Pas began working in fiber arts after her diagnosis of ME/CFS in 2015, exploring gender, embodiment, and her own symptomatology through the “slow art” of embroidery. Alongside her art, below we excerpt some of her thoughts on her own creative practice and how her illness has reshaped her approach to “mak[ing] meaning.” Expanded and additional work from Lia appears in the forthcoming initial print volume of In Corpore Sano.
I consider most of my embroidery pieces to be self-portraits as well as a diary of my symptoms, interest, and investigations over time. The shapes are always feminine, whether I trace them from my own body or from photographs of my body, or if I use old engravings of women’s forms in which I recognize my own physical shapes.
It is well known that most autoimmune diseases affect women more often than men, and fibre arts, especially decorative fibre arts such as embroidery, have long been considered “women’s work” and not always taken seriously as art in the West. I am a woman illustrating my disease, my invisible symptoms, in a medium that has been kept alive by women. I spend hours in a room of my own, focusing — stitch by stitch — on how I feel in this disordered and aging body. Some women have felt trapped by the expectations that they focus on women’s work, but since beginning to embroider I have felt a freedom on par with much of my past performative work. If I must create slowly, then let the slowness be a meditation, let the quiet be a source of introspection, let the threads of my symptoms express themselves in thread on linen.
I was watching a period drama where a woman was told to “take to her bed and work on her embroidery.” Aware of how embroidery is considered “women’s work,” and, like most fibre arts, somewhat denigrated in the art world, I still thought, yes, this is something I could do, since I had already “taken to my bed.” I also thought that perhaps it would stop me from sinking into depression, as had happened before whenever I had no time or no energy to do creative work.
Eric Maisel, in his book The Van Gogh Blues, talks about how creative people must make meaning. That, when they are unable to make meaning, they go into a meaning crisis and must find a way to make meaning again. This theory has worked time and time again for me, and so I found out that my mother had some embroidery supplies from when she and I cross-stitched my younger sisters’ Ukrainian dance outfits years ago. She brought the supplies to me and I began to embroider.
Embroidery can be done reclining and must be done slowly and mindfully so as not to create knots in the threads. It, too, is anathema to the quick and busy ideal that Western culture aspires to. I knew I would bore quickly of the flowers and animal patterns that are core to most embroidery so I started with some of the text/image pieces I had created years before based on images found in the medical textbook Grey’s Anatomy by Henry Grey.
With that first piece I was smitten. I did a number of pieces in this body of work, which allowed me to both create and rest. It took energy to set up each piece, so I started planning bigger and more complex pieces in order to always have something I could pick up and restore myself with.
Months into this process, I was meditating while my nervous system buzzed and pinged and shrieked inside me when the lines of sensation became lines of thread in my mind’s eye. My first symptomatology piece was of a hand, thick navy lines of chain stitch crisscrossing with thin lines the same pale off-white as the cloth intertwining among the blue.
When I posted the piece on social media as Hand (paresthesia), other people with paresthesia (tingling) in their hands wrote me to say that this was the first time they could actually show someone what they were experiencing. I continued to create this body of work as well as intricate anatomical diagrams labeled with poetic text. Each piece — either symptomalogical or anatomical — explores my symptoms at the time, and over time I have created a visual diary of my slow recovery.
So what happens when we, as artists, spend years of study in a medium or craft and then it is lost to us? Embroidery — my main medium at the moment — seems far removed from creating and performing music/movement work. But I have found relationships through my practice of this new medium. The breath needs to be as smooth and even as possible when working with thin threads. There are the sounds of the needle piercing taut cloth, the hiss of the thread moving through it. The rhythm that comes into hands and arms and breath when sewing repeated patterns. The intense focus of such a slow art is — in itself — a performative act.
Embroidery is a slow art. I spend hours pulling thread through cloth to create an image that would be quickly drawn. There is an intimacy in this act. How the linen softens each time I pick up the piece, how my hair sometimes gets caught in the threads and sewn in. When I pierce myself with the needle my blood drips and sometimes remains as part of the piece. Each piece I make illustrates my symptoms and/or parts of my anatomy. It also illustrates the time I have spent with each stitch. The slow progression of image and symptom and breath.
One of the things I have learned through this whole experience is that we have so little control over our bodies. Illness and/or disability can occur to anyone, at any time, and it takes us over. This was one of the Stoic concepts that really spoke to me when I started studying and practicing Stoicism a few months into my illness. For many people, especially in our culture where the young and/or healthy are idealized, this concept is disturbing. It being disturbing doesn’t make it any less true, however. Accepting that there is so little control over out bodies is ultimately freeing. This is not to say that we should not attempt to care for our bodies, especially when ill. But sometimes symptoms arise with no clear cause and all we can do is attend to our bodies and their very present needs. A day, or a week, or sometimes months of symptom managements, done without blame, without resentment, offers room for joy. Yes, joy. When I spend time caring for myself, the chance that I will at some point in the future have the energy and the wherewithal to attend to my creative work expands exponentially.
Acceptance of my disease state is what has made it possible for me to engage with my symptoms creatively. To look both dispassionately and compassionately at my physical sensations has allowed me to see what beauty is possible when I transcribe them in words or image. I am not my illness, but my illness is of me, and it affects how I engage with my body, my creative work, and the world. I have learned how to engage with my body more deeply than I ever thought possible, and, through voicing my invisible symptoms in thread, have created a dialogue, a conversation, between my embodied experiences and those of others who experience the same symptoms.
I often wonder, what will I create on the other end of this experience, and within it, as I continue to work towards recovery? Every day, every week, every month, my embodied experience shifts, and so does my creative work and the way I approach it. Whether that be from a return of energy or stamina, or a dropping off of it due to a flare, I respond to my body first and that changes the way I make work and therefore the work itself. What I am making now and the potentiality of what I may yet make excites me. I shift with my body, with the weather, with what brings me closer to making my body heard.
The only thing I desire in all of this, aside from the discovery and implementation of a treatment for ME/CFS, is for there to be support structures in place in the artistic community for those of us not able-bodied enough to engage in the usual manner. Ways to show our work that do not involve being out in the world in ways that exacerbate our symptoms. So much in the artistic world revolves around being seen in the right place at the right time, and for those of us with ME/CFS being outside our homes and beholden to deadlines does not work. If it did not take so much energy to put our work out in the world, we might be seen. We may be physically absent from our artistic communities, but we are making work. Slowly, and not always consistently, but we are making work.
I am not a person who hangs on to regret. My illness happened as it happened, and my creative work responded to it. This may have been different if I had become ill much younger, but I became ill in the midst of my career, close to middle age, at a point where I know myself and how important it is for me to make work, always. Yes, if I had had a clear diagnosis and if treatments actually existed for ME/CFS three years ago, my life and my work would be much different. But that was not the way things were, and if was what it was, so now my work is what it is. Embodied.
Lia Pas is a Canadian interdisciplinary creator who makes work as text, sound, movement, and image. Her poetry has been published in numerous literary journals as well as in her book what is this place we have come to (Thistledown Press, 2003) and her chapbooks vicissitudes (Underwhich Editions, 2001) and Husk (JackPine Press, 2008). Her videopoem about the heart — susurrations (2009) — can be found on Vimeo. Lia’s music has been performed by chamber ensembles, used as soundtracks for short films, and broadcast on CBC and BBC radio. She has worked extensively with movement artists and was composer/librettist for Fihi ma Fihi (2015), a full-length dance-rock-opera with La Caravan Dance Theatre. Since becoming ill with ME/CFS in 2015 Lia has focused primarily on textile-based work exploring anatomy and symptomatology. She can be found online at liapas.com.
IN CORPORE SANO: Creative Practice and the Challenged* Body, is a transdisciplinary collection and conversation by, on, and for bodies-against-within-despite, in the form of an ongoing web series and a forthcoming print:document series (preorder a copy here!). If you’d like to be a part of ICS, rolling submissions for the project are once again open.
With thanks to managing editor and lead facilitator Elæ [Lynne DeSilva-Johnson].