I spent 15 years sand­ing and grind­ing mus­sel shells to cre­ate my art. I had no idea they were slowly killing me

Toronto Life - - Front Page - by gil­lian genser

When you’re an artist, the work of­ten be­comes more im­por­tant than you. Sadly, that’s al­ways been the case for me. I started sculpt­ing in 1991, work­ing only with nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als. At first, I sold small sculp­tures made of eggshells at the One of a Kind Show. Later, I cre­ated larger pieces mod­elled af­ter the hu­man anatomy us­ing bones, coral and dried plants. My stu­dio housed a col­lec­tion of dead things.

In 1998, I fin­ished a sculp­ture of Lilith—the first wo­man, ac­cord­ing to Jewish folk­lore—made from eggshells. I be­gan us­ing blue mus­sel shells to cre­ate her coun­ter­part: Adam, the first man. The shells came from At­lantic Canada, and I’d buy them in bulk in Chi­na­town, so that I could sort through the bins and choose shells in the shapes I wanted.

I spent up to 12 hours a day grind­ing and sand­ing the shells to fit into the shape of Adam’s body. They beau­ti­fully repli­cated the stri­a­tions in his mus­cle fi­bres. I sifted through thou­sands of mus­sels and served them to friends and fam­ily two or three times a week.

Af­ter a few months work­ing on Adam, I be­gan to feel un­well. I was ag­i­tated all of the time. I had con­stant headaches, and I vom­ited of­ten, some­times a few times a day. I vis­ited a never-end­ing as­sort­ment of specialists—neu­rol­o­gists, rheuma­tol­o­gists, en­docri­nol­o­gists—hop­ing to fig­ure out what was wrong with me. When they asked me if I worked with any­thing toxic, I said no, that I only used nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als.

The symp­toms wors­ened. Af­ter a few hours of grind­ing mus­sel shells, I would be­come im­mo­bi­lized. My mus­cles ached. My hands would cramp when I held my tools. I be­came com­bat­ive and fa­tal­is­tic, declar­ing that my life was over. My hus­band was afraid to the leave the house, wor­ried he’d come home and find me hang­ing from the chan­de­lier. He found friends to babysit me. Th­ese symp­toms con­tin­ued, on and off, for 15 years.

One day in 2013, I cleaned out my ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem, which had trapped years of fine dust. As I swept out the par­ti­cles, I sud­denly felt weak and un­able to stand. For the next week, I lay in bed, my mind in a fog. I couldn’t string full sen­tences to­gether, and my speech was slurred. My whole body was in ex­cru­ci­at­ing, par­a­lyz­ing pain—my neck, ab­domen, arms—and I had sud­denly lost all hearing in my left ear.

My hearing didn’t re­turn af­ter that, and my short-term mem­ory be­came badly im­paired. I de­vel­oped spa­tial dis­ori­en­ta­tion, con­fus­ing up with down, right with left. I couldn’t rec­og­nize peo­ple I had known most of my life. At the peak of my men­tal dis­tress, I would walk up and down the street, mut­ter­ing and shout­ing pro­fan­i­ties to no one in par­tic­u­lar. I saw a psy­chi­a­trist, but he had no idea why I was so er­ratic. We tried ev­ery­thing: an­tide­pres­sants, an­tipsy­chotics, tran­quil­iz­ers. Noth­ing helped. Painfully aware of my de­te­ri­o­rat­ing men­tal health, I be­gan to with­draw from the world.

It was nearly im­pos­si­ble to cre­ate art in this state. My brain was no longer ca­pa­ble of con­jur­ing up any­thing ex­cept anger and mis­ery. But I be­lieved I was dy­ing, and I wanted to fin­ish the sculp­ture of Adam be­fore I was gone. I had no idea he was the thing that was killing me.

One day, I vis­ited the ROM, where I met a cu­ra­tor of in­ver­te­brates. He men­tioned that bones and shells ac­cu­mu­late tox­ins in their en­vi­ron­ment. Upon fur­ther re­search, I dis­cov­ered that com­mon blue mus­sels are fil­ter feed­ers. They pump sev­eral litres of wa­ter per hour and con­cen­trate chem­i­cals in their tis­sues. In some coun­tries, mus­sels are used to read tox­i­c­ity lev­els in the wa­ter. Sud­denly, ev­ery­thing clicked into place.

In 2015, I was di­ag­nosed with heavy-metal poi­son­ing. Doc­tors found high lev­els of ar­senic and lead in my blood, the re­sult of chronic ex­po­sure. The wa­ter where the mus­sels grew was likely con­tam­i­nated from in­dus­trial waste, and the mus­sel shells I’d been work­ing with for decades were toxic. Met­als can be ab­sorbed through con­sump­tion, air or skin. I’d been ex­posed in ev­ery way.

I will never fully re­cover, and I con­tinue to live with many neu­ro­log­i­cal and meta­bolic symp­toms. I have dif­fi­culty hold­ing a thought. I’ll pick up a tool to work on a piece and for­get why I chose it. I strug­gle with au­toim­mune dis­or­ders, and there are many foods I can’t eat with­out be­com­ing ill. I’m at a high risk for de­vel­op­ing Alzheimer’s or Parkin­son’s. Heavy met­als have an affin­ity for the tis­sues of the ner­vous sys­tem, par­tic­u­larly the ones in the brain.

I’m now 59 years old, and my qual­ity of life is poor. But while I con­tinue to work, even though it’s more dif­fi­cult ev­ery day, I feel a ter­ri­ble sad­ness now. I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced the suf­fer­ing of so many crea­tures trapped in their pol­luted habi­tats. I keep mak­ing art now, so I can give them a voice—one that makes peo­ple aware of our con­nec­tion to our ecosys­tem.

I fin­ished Adam in 2015. If I had left him un­fin­ished, this all would have been for noth­ing. When I look at him, I feel grief—both for my­self and our planet. But I also feel joy be­cause he is mag­nif­i­cent. That’s how I find my hope. I call him my beau­ti­ful death.

Af­ter a few hours work­ing with the shells, I would be­come com­pletely im­mo­bi­lized

Gil­lian Genser is a sculp­tor in Toronto. Email sub­mis­sions to mem­[email protected]­to­

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