Printmaker, Illustrator and Book Artist Lara Varga talks about her Art work and practice and how she came to use her skills to introduce other people with Scoliosis to the work of Frida Kahlo.
I graduated in Fine Art (London Metropolitan Uni, 1999) and since then have been a member of a co-op printmaking workshop. Printmakers usually share equipment. My primary medium is etching, working with copper plates and ferric chloride acid. Ferric is a safer acid, with less toxic fumes.
I have been etching for nearly 15 years and learn something new every time I make an image. It is a challenging medium and especially suited to artists interested in line, poetry and books. Blake was one of the greatest etchers of all time and also the first creator of what is now called artists' books. This is where the artist - a visual artist - writes, illustrates and constructs a book. Often as a one off, or a limited edition - sometimes not even in a book shape! Book artists not involved in making processes are defined as conceptual book artists. To me making is very important. Traditionally adults don't have pictures in books! This is one reason post-degree I chose a professional development course at Chelsea that focused on children's book illustration.
Consequently I designed my own picture book for adults - an original fable I produced as a hand-made artist's book. I wrote, illustrated (black and white), and bound it. Check out an image from it called; heart keys, on this website. In recent years I also work in watercolour/coloured pencil for illustration projects. In 2005 I completed my first illustration commission, for a poet in Bristol. Most of the images I am showing here are from the collection of poems called; Ride-on including the etching; Ride On, created for the book cover.
Personal work I show in galleries is mostly on the theme of Nature Elementals. I have a strong interest in ecology and this is reflected in a love of tree people. Figures like the green man were an intimate and integral part of traditional life on the British Isles and Europe. Creating my tree people I am interested in expressing an animist world view; all of Nature is alive and there is more to us and our world than the physical, this is what all ancient and modern mytho-magical belief suggests.
I have incorporated disability arts into my educational work, rather than implicitly in the images I now make. At University I explored ideas about myself and my relationship to medicine, emotional health and self-healing. This was helpful for personal development, as someone living with a severe respiratory condition and scoliosis (curvature of the spine).
I did work about the body - but always with a strong metaphysical subtext. The body explored as voyeuristic object - is almost obligatory in terms of contemporary Fine Art practice - and is what is expected of you as a female artist. That's partly why I have now rejected working with the body in my practice. Disability is one segment of my identity, and I consider for example my love of Spain (I lived in Spain/ learnt Spanish as part of my degree) ecology and spirituality as equally strong parts of my identity pie.
Frida and spinal fusion
When I was in my teens, one of the only woman artists you could find books on was Frida Kahlo (the others: Kathe Kollowitz, an amazing printmaker and Mary Cassat, an impressionist painter-printmaker), who had the same operation which is used for scoliosis today; spinal fusion. In fact Frida was an early pioneer of the treatment and had several different spinal operations, after being involved in an accident at a young age. So, it was a strange and great thing to aspire to be an artist and read of this great female painter having gone through all of the treatments I had - and more. After my surgery I was in a body plaster cast for 6 months and in a plastic body-cast for another six. The local council provided me with an art teacher at home for 6 months. She was a painter and a great gift to me, as she and I had a good friendship.
What is amazing is that to this day youngsters, as young as thirteen, are going for the surgery (and it is major surgery) and have no pre-surgery advice and counselling and none after either. You are expected to manage the best you can. However, the NHS commissioned some research in 2005, Coping with stress for people with Scoliosis, which made recommendations to offer psychological support and back-up within a multi-disciplinary team, e.g. psychologists/ occupational therapists etc. Interestingly the research does not mention offering within the team less medicalised support, such as peer mentoring, artists or Art sessions, all of which offer less medicalised support. None of the researchers were disabled themselves, which I commented on to the research team. Being health professionals - i.e. professionalizing disability - they did not understand the significance of having a disabled researcher. It was a lost opportunity, perhaps leaving gaps in their approach. The research worked with people with Scoliosis as patients, not contributors.
However, what would have been helpful when I was younger was if I had been introduced to people my own age going through treatment. Or if I had been told about the patient focused group SAUK (Scoliosis Association UK). Meeting people going through similar experiences, can have a very positive impact on emotional coping and processing. I was lucky that I met someone with Scoliosis just before my surgery (who later introduced me to SAUK) otherwise I would have had no idea what the surgery involved in terms of recovery/treatment. At times you have to wonder, why do so many medical professionals not let patients know about self-help groups? Does the fact they don't act as a kind of negligence? Ignoring as it does the holistic needs of patients? I have to say I think in the past self-help/awareness has been a kind of threat to traditional medical teaching and approach.
Linking my training in Disability Equality and my experience as an artist in educational settings I approached the Scoliosis association and suggested I run a day based on the Frida Kahlo exhibition (Tate Modern, summer 2005) for younger members. I wanted to create an opportunity to introduce Frida Kahlo's inspiring life and art to a new generation of young women who have undergone spinal fusion (there are only a handful of boys with scoliosis, it is a predominantly female condition). Second to introduce a group going through treatment, to each other, to see if support and friendships could be forged and thirdly to enjoy the wonderful atmosphere of Tate and get inspired to use creativity as a way through pain, frustration and/or restriction. I also wanted to highlight the fact that SAUK is there for support and advice (www.sauk.org.uk) if you need it.
We had a great day discovering Frida, very positive feedback and as a result I am now planning three different SAUK Creative Arts workshops for this summer, including another day at Tate Modern, one in Bristol and one in Birmingham. As disabled people if we develop and begin to lead self-help organizations, that represents real progress for our needs.
Contact me about illustration commissions, bespoke education projects and exhibiting in Fine Art contexts. To find out more about the Scoliosis Association go to www.sauk.org.uk. SAUK is celebrating 25 years, autumn 2006-2007. If you know of a young person with scoliosis, please let them know about our workshops.
Lara Varga is exhibiting at Riverside Café, from 3rd July - 1st October 2006. Preview evening, meet the artists, Sunday 9th July, with live jazz and jugs of Sangria.
Access : Riverside Café is next to the river, by Pulteney Weir. There are very steep stairs leading from Pulteney Bridge; an alternative route is via an under-road tunnel, take the turning from Argyle Street onto Grove Street. Call 01225 480532 for further directions.