A family member recently sent me an article on art and migraines, and reading it gave me the idea to write about my own migraines and how they became a positive force in my development as an artist. In my teens and early twenties, I experienced frequent classic migraines, and I never had much success in treating them with medication. Thankfully, as I got older and had my first child, they improved drastically. After also finding the right combination of diet and daily exercise, I now get them only a few times a year, and they are not nearly as severe.
Migraines can affect people in many different ways, but mine were the classic form; a short visual aura preceding one-sided pain and nausea that sometimes lasted for days. About 20 minutes before the pain started, I would see a visual disturbance that looked like a cracked windshield in a c-shaped form, scintillating at the edges and spreading out in a circular pattern. I painted it once to show my neurologist what I was talking about. This is how it would look on a black background:
Aura, 24″ x 24″ acrylic on canvas, copyright © Kathryn Beals
Reading about migraines and seeing other artists’ depictions, I learned that these c-shaped patterns (called scotomas) are fairly common in migraine auras, due to a pattern of changes that occur in the brain during an attack. It’s still pretty alarming to watch one unfold.
At the same time as I was struggling with the migraines, I was finding my style as a painter. Like many developing artists, I started to move away from realism and (without making the connection to my migraine auras) began painting these paintings:
Top left: Wander, 30″ x 40″ acrylic on canvas, top right: North, 16″ x 20″ acrylic on canvas, bottom: Starry river, 22″ x 28″ acrylic on canvas
Light in the Desert, 20″ x 24″ acrylic on canvas, Sanctuary, 20″ x 24″ acrylic on canvas
Haven, 16″ x 20″ acrylic on canvas, Heartwood, 24″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas
Solstice, 24″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas, Blessing: 24″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas
The migraines got less frequent, but I felt more and more at home painting these surreal skies with circular patterns. The images often came to me in dreams. Now that the migraines are mostly behind me, I remember the pain less and the auras more, and I can look back and see them everywhere in my early work. Though scary, the visual disturbances were often beautiful and almost supernatural.
Top left: North Star, 24″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas, right: Amazed, 20″ x 24″ acrylic on canvas, bottom: Beyond, 24″ x 30″ acrylic on canvas
I don’t miss the migraines, and I’m thankful to be mostly rid of them. However, they gave me a new way of seeing the world, and now I can look back and see them in some ways as a gift.