The art of healing

They say if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Life gave Susan Trachman multiple sclerosis (MS), so she made … art. 

It all goes back to 1988, shortly after Trachman, a designer by training, was diagnosed at 26 with the autoimmune disease that attacks the coverings of the nerves. Every evening, she would inject herself with Copaxone, a drug designed to decrease the frequency of MS relapses. And each time, she would save the bottles that held the medication and the saline solution into which it was mixed. She also saved her MRI images, unused syringes, packaging and other medical paraphernalia. 

“I knew at some point, I would do something with them,” said Trachman, who lives with her husband in Beverlywood. 

Twenty-five years later, the materials have been transformed into artwork that is enlightening medical professionals and patients alike. Compiled as an exhibition titled “Patient/Artist,” her pieces are on display at the Gallery at the Learning Resource Center at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine through Sept. 4. 

“I’ve taken something that has a negative [connotation] and turned it into something positive. Sometimes, it’s beautiful. Sometimes, it’s a reminder of having MS,” Trachman said. “Art is a way for me to work out some of the things I’m feeling.” 

Trachman’s work is not the first to grace the medical education building’s walls. It is one in a series of art shows designed to help medical students and others understand and relate to those with illness. 

The Gallery at the Learning Resource Center is a result of a collaboration between artist Ted Meyer, who curates the shows, and LuAnn Wilkerson, senior associate dean for medical education. Wilkerson oversees the medical school’s curriculum, including the three-year doctoring program that emphasizes the emotional side of caregiving. 

“A patient experiences illness in a very different way than a physician experiences disease,” Wilkerson said. “These are mostly first- and second-year students, so they haven’t been immersed in the clinical setting. For them, the disease is still a ‘book’ idea.”

The Gallery program helps students appreciate how illness affects the lives of patients they will be treating in the future, Wilkerson said. She also noted that the exhibits are linked to the curriculum. Medical students were learning about neuroscience when they saw Trachman’s work on display. 

Although she always loved art, Trachman had never created it before making these works. A UCLA graduate with a degree in design, she worked as a calligrapher, graphic designer and textile designer before taking a job as an interior designer for a commercial and residential architecture firm. She left the job to become a full-time mother to her two children, now 16 and 19.

Trachman created her first piece, “Order,” in 2009. Three glass boxes hold saline and medication vials arranged, like a mosaic, in varying patterns.

“When we have MS, we start to lose some control over parts of our body,” she explained during a recent tour of the show. “With these vials and boxes, I had control. … It became cathartic.”

“Chaos,” another piece, features the medicine bottles embedded in resin. Like the course of her illness, she said, this piece wasn’t “planned out.”

“At times, I have felt like my life was chaotic. There were so many things I couldn’t control,” Trachman said. “For this piece, I threw the bottles into the resin and wherever they landed, they landed.” 

Trachman poses in front of two of her MRI brain images used in “Living Color.”

Discussing her art with medical students and explaining what it’s like to live with a chronic illness, she said, allowed the future physicians to see her not just as a person or a patient with MS but as a combination of the two.

“One student told me, ‘I can read my book and memorize information … but there’s no way for me to get this kind of knowledge from a book,’ ” she said.

In addition to presenting her work to medical school students, Trachman has shown it to participants of UCLA’s MS Achievement Center for individuals with multiple sclerosis. On a July afternoon, when the medical students were on summer break, Trachman explained “Living Color” to about a dozen people at the center. 

The piece consists of four MRI brain images — all of them Trachman’s — displayed on light boxes. The first, a standard black-and-white X-ray, shows the white area on her brain that reveals plaque, an indication of MS. The other three are vividly painted in neon colors, the patterns almost popping off the film.

“I wanted to see the beauty beyond,” she explained. “I think there’s so much more there than the plaque.”

Her approach seemed to speak to the viewers. 

“This one looks like something scary,” said one woman, pointing to the black-and-white image. “But these look beautiful. … There’s a small part [of your brain] that’s wrong, but the rest of it is beautiful and healthy and vibrant.”

The observation echoes Trachman’s outlook. Although leg weakness makes her reliant on a walker to get around, she chooses not to dwell on her challenges. Rather, she focuses “on what I can do and what I do have, not what can’t do and don’t have,” she said.

And one thing she can do is create art.

“I was doing it for myself,” Trachman said. “I thought that when I had done enough pieces, I’d find a way to do an exhibit for friends and family. … I never anticipated my art being in this type of venue. It’s 100 times better than I could have imagined.”

She hopes to take the exhibit to other venues. In the meantime, she’s already conceptualizing a new piece for the drug and addiction treatment center Beit T’Shuvah near Culver City.

“Art and this outlet is my way to get in touch with God,” Trachman said. “It helps me and it heals me, and it makes me feel better.”

She’s philosophical about the path her life has taken. 

“I wouldn’t be doing this amazing work and meeting these amazing people if it weren’t for MS. So there is something to be said about having this kind of illness and then reaching out,” Trachman said.  “Do I want to sound grateful for having MS? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

For more information about the “Patient/Artist” exhibition, visit this article at

Ms. magazine’s ad rejection elicits strong response

The American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) is ramping up its protest against Ms. magazine’s rejection of its pro-Israel advertisement.

In a campaign launched Sunday, AJCongress urged people to write, call or e-mail the prominent feminist publication to “register your complaint at their anti-Israel bias.”

It also has enlisted the support of high-powered Jewish feminist speakers, several of whom were to appear at a news conference Tuesday.

The ad in question features photos of three prominent Israeli women leaders and the phrase “This is Israel.”

AJCongress leaders claim Ms. rejected the ad because of its bias against Israel — a charge the magazine’s executive editor hotly denied.

“We only take mission-driven advertisements,” Katherine Spillar said last Friday.

“Because two of the women were from the same political party, we understood it as political endorsement,” she said. Ms. “does not get involved in the domestic politics” of other countries.

AJCongress President Richard Gordon called that argument “specious,” noting that in any parliamentary democracy, the foreign minister and parliament leader are going to be from the same party.

Gordon also noted that none of the women are running for office, and the ad does not suggest support for either of their parties.

He pointed out that Ms. ran a cover story about Jordan’s Queen Noor in 2003, and a story in its most recent issue about Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, under the headline “This is What a Speaker Looks Like.”

Gordon said the only difference he sees between Pelosi and the three women featured in the AJCongress ad is that Pelosi is not Israeli.

“Ms. magazine obviously is trying to create a legal fiction after the fact to cover their bias at the time of the incident,” he said.

Spillar said Tuesday that it is “unfair and untrue” to allege that Ms. magazine is anti-Israel. She said the magazine is running a two-page profile of Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni, one of the three leaders pictured in the AJCongress ad, in its Winter 2008 issue, which hits newsstands Jan. 29.

In a faxed statement, Spillar wrote that the magazine has covered the Israeli feminist movement and the country’s women leaders in 11 articles in its past 16 issues.

But the AJCongress ad was “inconsistent” with the Ms. policy of not being politically partisan, and the slogan “This is Israel” in the ad “implied that women in Israel hold equal positions of power with men,” whereas “Israel, like every other country, has far to go to reach equality for women.”

Speaking later to JTA by phone, Spillar said she “puts the U.S. in the same category as Israel” in terms of having far to go to achieve full gender equality. But the AJCongress ad “was almost a country ad, and we don’t take country ads.”

Harriet Kurlander, the director of AJCongress’s Commission for Women’s Empowerment, said that when she originally tried to place the ad, a magazine representative told her that the magazine “would love to have an ad from you on women’s empowerment, or reproductive freedom, but not on this.”

In other conversations with magazine staff members, Kurlander said she was told that publishing the ad would “set off a firestorm.”

Kurlander said the magazine should admit its “cover-up” and “simply print the ad.”

Among the Jewish feminists speaking out on the issue is Blu Greenberg, the founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Greenberg said that by not accepting the ad, Ms. is “aligning itself with the political far left that wants to delegitimize Israel altogether on the stage of world opinion.”

“I wish I could believe that we’re overblowing it, but I’ve been in numerous situations where I’ve seen the same thing — this total excoriation of Israel,” she said. “That’s what we’re all feeling right now.”

Susan Weidman Schneider of Lilith magazine said she was “very surprised” by the refusal of Ms. to run the ad. But Schneider said that after speaking to the magazine’s publisher Monday, she believes the ad was likely rejected “out of a place of ignorance” and was not intended as “a willful slap in the face to Israel.”

Weidman Schneider said she considers Spillar’s argument “possibly an ex post facto explanation.”

She said she told publisher Eleanor Smeal that in retrospect, Ms. would have done better to suggest to the AJCongress that the group shape an ad reflecting a broader range of women’s advancement in Israel if any perceived partisanship in the original ad was the impediment.

But beyond the fracas surrounding the actual ad, Weidman Schneider said she is disturbed by the “vitriol” she has seen on Jewish and feminist blogs over the past few days relating to the incident.

“I didn’t expect the depth of anti-feminist sentiment that this incident has stirred up,” she said, noting that she has read comments referring to “femiNazis” and others suggesting the feminist movement is inherently anti-Israel. “I felt quite chilled.”