Artist Christine Holton describes how painting human anatomy serves a deeply personal and therapeutic role
The human body is a complex and fascinating subject, and there are more resources for us to tend to our wellness today than ever before. While there is no roadmap to finding love for our bodies, painting anatomy and telling the story of my own experiences have brought me home to myself.
My paintings explore the symbology, purpose and functions of living things. They are portraits that celebrate and venerate living systems for their unique characteristics, ancient designs and meaning. I am interested in the branch-like forms, patterns and symmetry found in human anatomy; symbols of nature such as trees and animals. I am fascinated by and in awe of these living systems, their functions and their energies – my own human organs included.
I celebrate and emphasize my subjects, using bright colors to bring attention to them and to add fantasy. Lively, painterly brushstrokes express their movement and vitality. Up-close views, centered subjects, and fantasy-like environments are meant to enchant the viewer, bringing them into the vision.
Visualizing somatic systems in the body while meditating or just sitting in a relaxing place brings artistic inspiration. This practice is an exciting development in integrating my own health and creative practice; learning about how physical symptoms can be created from emotional distress. Many people are unable to process traumatic experiences verbally, yet can find a voice for it through creating art.
As a child, growing up in a very religious family, I developed feelings of self-consciousness early on about my identity and my own female body. I recall being told that physical desire was a choice, not a natural feeling. The world beyond my family seemed unpredictable and destabilizing, and I craved a sense of control over that fear. Focusing on being very thin and being hungry became sensations that felt safe. The societal pressures to look thin were in my gaze as well; watching other girls and women (my mother included) in daily battles with their own bodies. I sought to control and suppress these feelings by developing an eating disorder, and felt emotionally and physically numb for most of those years. I began drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. The constant crisis from disconnection with myself and others was part of everyday living. While I went to extreme measures to escape my pain, I understand that these feelings are experienced to some degree by many.
I did not visit any health practitioners for over ten years. I remember feeling constantly achy and tired; my limbs heavy and my chest tight with anxiety and fear of being “found out”. My own body was as foreign to me as someone else’s, a chasm between my outside appearance and my inside feelings.
Many people have experienced an inability to process traumatic experiences verbally, yet find a voice through artistic expression. With sobriety, ideas bloomed as my body and mind began to heal. That process of discovering new physical sensations, after a time, led to healing from other wounds.
I started painting and drawing every day in a small, square sketchbook. I have a friend who did this for a month once; her unique designs looked like a kind of unfolding written language, and it intrigued me how her ongoing work seemed to build on these daily sketches. Designs, symbols and ideas emerged and grew as I painted, drew, collaged and printed in that sketchbook. The physical act of sitting, breathing and making felt grounding and nourishing; a daily meditation, a time of connection with myself.
I began sharing these daily works on Instagram and with a dear artist friend, Dalia, who was recovering from cancer. Over that year and the next, her cancer returned, and I walked beside her through treatment. Her sketchbooks were filled with ink drawings about suffering and painful therapies, love of friends and nature, skeletons with flowers for eyes. In her work I first saw lymph nodes drawn, cracking open like melons with hearts inside.
Later that year, Dalia passed away from T-cell Lymphoma. I had no idea at that time that my own work would one day include human anatomy. I had a new diagnosis of Hashimoto’s Hypothyroidism. Developing a curiosity about the thyroid, I began painting its textured butterfly shape. I started to notice more sensation in parts of my body, while also making art about my inability to talk about losing Dalia. I studied anatomy diagrams and learned about the systems of the human body. It felt like I was seeing myself as a human for the first time, not a ghost of one. I mourned that lost self, yet the anatomy studies and artwork blossomed from that grieving place, and my creative life continues to expand!
Currently, I have moved halfway across the United States from Durham, North Carolina to Navasota, Texas for the Navasota Artist in Residence Program. I miss my home and partner, friends and animals, and though I understand this is a temporary grief, my tense shoulders and clenched jaw don’t know the difference. Grief is experienced as acute pain from a loss. Honoring these feelings feels honest, and sharing about them through words or imagery feels necessary. All humans experience physical and emotional losses, and grieving gives us a collective expanded societal belonging. Sometimes painting the physical body part helps me to feel my emotions more fully; it would be easy to avoid them.
The loss of physically seeing and touching my animals creates a yawning space that craves the furry hug of loving creatures. I have been painting portraits of my animals and have been hired for pet portrait commissions as a result of simply doing what feels therapeutic. Through experiencing loss of the familiar, I can explore through painting what loss feels like; to try new color palettes to convey tension, anxiety and the excitement of discovering something new. The wildflowers here are stunning and have been a dynamic subject for painting.
There is a very different political climate here. So many different views, and yet what happens if I expand self-love to include absolutely everyone, and what if by accepting myself and others as exactly who we are supposed to be in this moment, we are all a little freer? How does this freeness feel in my body and in what space is it concentrated? How have I been holding others in blame, and in what part of my body do I feel that? Noticing where my physical body holds emotions and feelings has become important.
My skin feels softer in places and maybe I am becoming softer. Perhaps I am feeling kindness for myself as my body is slowly bending and stretching. I love the feel of my bones moving underneath my muscles and how the wind feels blowing against my skin, feathering the hairs on it. I feel deep in my belly a delicate emptiness; that I am my own advocate and best friend wherever travel takes me, and that no one else knows of my strivings for health and wellness in this new place. They have their own worlds to cultivate, cherish and build.
The responsibility for self-care is growing from that awareness. It has been a long while since I moved alone somewhere. My body at rest feels connected with an inner knowing that comes from more moments of stillness, and it’s periodically hard to be still for the creative ideas that come – but it is worth it.
It has been my experience that any area of the body disconnected from the brain will not be able to stay healthy or heal itself. I make sure to move my body often, and to enjoy good food, music and time exploring nature. The predictable effect of stored trauma is degeneration and disease, and I know that healing the mind will benefit the body. This relationship is a unity, and I am excited both for the rest of the residency here in Texas and for my own healing.