LydiaEmily: An Artist With MS Spreads Messages of Hope, Kindness, and Resilience
Painter LydiaEmily ties brushes to her hands to paint images related to global politics and survivorship.
By Stephanie Stephens
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"Let it be me," says the artist LydiaEmily about her secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS) diagnosis.
"I’m grateful it happened to me, because the only other option is that it would happen to somebody else, and I wouldn't want that," says the outspoken, tattooed artist from Austin, Texas, who goes by one name.
An oil painter for 20 years, LydiaEmily is on a mission to share her gifts and teach people to help each other.
"It's the hardest thing to do — to give people tolerance. I can't get on my soapbox and preach, so I try to do it with actions. For every painting I sell, I donate one. The only thing that makes life worth living is being good and kind to each other," she says.
Her recent portraits feature survivors, including rape victims, people with drug addictions, survivors of sex trafficking, soldiers, and cult members.
"I interviewed people as I met them, collecting their stories through the years. Their songs should be sung," LydiaEmily says.
The Chicago native, 46, is a survivor herself of both illness and violence. Twice a victim of rape, she’s also had cervical cancer, and she's a single mother of two daughters, one of them with autism. In 2012, LydiaEmily faced a new challenge when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Unbounded Commitment to Art
LydiaEmily’s 2014 show Bound, at the Garboushian Gallery in Beverly Hills, California, depicted individuals bound by addiction and other personal demons. A 2019 show at the same gallery, entitled The Faces of Survival, featured survivors whose harrowing tales were written out next to the art.
Her next show will be in 2019, she says, and she's already mentally preparing for it, never short of subject matter. The world's political figures provide plenty of fodder for inspiration.
In 2015, for example, she created a mural of the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on an outer wall of a Los Angeles café.
Early in her career as a painter, LydiaEmily hung posters of her work on exterior walls. That venture evolved to painting murals, which she mostly painted at night to be less conspicuous. She admits the urban endeavors weren't always safe, but she persevered in the face of threats.
Since her MS diagnosis, LydiaEmily has painted numerous murals spreading hope about MS, including in Houston; Portland, Oregon; and Louisville, Kentucky.
She continues to paint murals up to six times a year but says the prep can be exhausting.
"The painting takes two or three days, but arranging for a cherry picker and buying paint, plus navigating the weather — those things really take time," she says.
Effects of Multiple Sclerosis
All of this is becoming more difficult recently because of her multiple sclerosis.
As LydiaEmily talks to this journalist, she realizes she's forgotten her wallet at the last stop — again. "It's from the brain damage from MS," she says. Her memory loss means "you can tell me the same story over and over, and I'll keep laughing at it because I won't remember."
She's also lost most of the use of her left eye. Now she wears a heart-shaped eye patch over it, a gift from her older daughter, Dorothy, 16.
LydiaEmily's once-nimble fingers aren't so flexible now, so she ties her paintbrushes to her hands with shoelaces to help her paint.
"I'm in a tremendous amount of pain," she says. "My spine feels like someone's jamming fingers into my back, and I have 'fire ants' between my teeth and gums."
Right now her medication regimen includes the MS disease-modifying drug Tecfidera (dimethyl fumarate), along with methocarbamol, a muscle relaxant. She's also been prescribed ibuprofen and the anti-epileptic medication gabapentin for pain. And she takes an antidepressant, Cymbalta (duloxetine), for neuropathic pain.
She's been without health insurance for a while, but is currently engaged and says she will have coverage again in a few months once she and her fiancé have tied the knot. Until then, she continues to pay for her own medications.
Daughters — and Best Friends
LydiaEmily paints at night now, when her daughters are asleep, so her waking time can be spent with them. In addition to Dorothy, she is mother to Coco, 14, who has been diagnosed with autism.
"I sleep four hours a night, three during the day, when they're at school," she says. A devoted mother, she says her daughters are "amazing."
"They're both artists — drawing, painting, sculpting, and making cartoon strips,” she says. “They're smart, polite, classy, and wonderful — my best friends."
Next Up: PC594, the Movie
Over the past five years, the director Libby Spears has been shooting a documentary about LydiaEmily, her art, and her life, calledPC594: The Art of Rebellion.
PC594 stands for Penal Code Section 594, the California law prohibiting the defacement, damage, or destruction of real or personal property — something LydiaEmily was found in violation of after she painted a mural of Barack Obama bearing the words “The Audacity of Compromise” near a freeway.
She now has a tattoo on her arm reading “PC594.”
Currently in editing, the final cut of the film should be ready for festival showings in 2019.
Video: Mural campaign supports National Multiple Sclerosis Society, spreads positive message
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