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Triumphs Over Trauma: The Scar Prints of Ted Meyer

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Los Angele artist Ted Meyer is scarred for life, but you wouldn't know it from talking to him. His bright green eyes light up and his smile broadens as he describes hearing from people in faraway countries that his art has helped them to accept and even embrace their scars. In his fifties now, Meyer walks with a spring in his step, which he did not do as a child or a younger man. Born with Gaucher's disease, a rare genetic disorder that causes pain and deterioration of the joints and organs, he spent much of his childhood in hospital, where he made art to help him cope with his condition. After studying design at Arizona State University, he began painting works that reflected his constant battles with his body, his pain and the sense of being trapped inside a damaged shell. Years later, thanks to successful hip replacements and improvements in medical treatments, Meyer now feels healthy, and his work has shifted from being introspective to focusing on others, searching for stories of survival as told through scars.

For the last 15 years, Meyer's "Scarred for Life" series has documented the experiences of people who have been scarred because of an illness or injury. His inspiration for the series appeared at an opening for one of his painting exhibitions in 1999 -- an elegant woman in a wheel chair wearing a backless dress that revealed a long scar all the way down her spine. She was a dancer, and Meyer learned that she had slipped off a zip line while working as a camp counselor and broken her back. As he got to know her and see her handle her situation with grace and beauty, he became intrigued by the idea that scars tell individual stories; they make people physically and emotionally unique.

"Mastectomy Scar" by Ted Meyer, 2005, gouache on vellum by Ted Meyer, 3 x 8 inches | Courtesy of the artist.

For this series, Meyer takes each of the mono-prints directly off the skin of models who were scarred by spinal surgery, mastectomies, bullet wounds, amputations. He allows them to choose their own colors; most select cheerful reds, purples, yellows or pinks. He then adds details with gouache and color pencil, creating delicate abstract compositions in which the incision mark becomes a bold stroke emanating richly colored energy. Next, he photographs the models with the same paint color on their scars and includes their own account of how the scar came about and its affect on their lives. The combination of print, photograph and words sensitively yet powerfully depicts brave personal victories, from the graceful dancer who continues to dance from her wheelchair to the devoted mother who survives a mastectomy to raise her twin sons and the arm-amputee who can find humor in the loss of her limb.

"Lung Removal Scar" by Ted Meyer, 1998, gouache on vellum, 12 x 22 inches | Courtesy of the artist.

Although the formation of a scar indicates that the body has healed from an injury, it is often difficult to recover emotionally from the injury or the scar itself. "In Los Angeles, where looks are so important, this can be particularly hard," admits Meyer. By transforming each of these scars into art, Meyer helps his models to see their scars more as decorations than defects - as evidence of their own unique experience of survival. "Usually, I am capturing people's scars just as they are getting to a point of acceptance, when they are moving from feeling that life sucks to a feeling that life is good," he explains.

"Brain Cancer Scar" by Ted Meyer, 2007, gouache on vellum, 5 x 5 inches | Courtesy of the artist.

Sometimes Meyer is the first person other than the model to touch the scar. Trusting him not only to touch the scars but to share their stories as art has helped many of them to embrace the physical scarring as a part of their new selves and move on with their lives. "The series is not so much about the visual scars and the trauma; you never actually see the scars on the models. Creating the scar prints is my way to get to the stories of how these people have put their lives back together." In many cases, the prints have enabled the loved ones of the subjects featured to better understand their emotional journey. They have also inspired hope in strangers going through similar traumatic treatments and surgeries.

Meyer's sensitive artistic approach to injury and healing has led him to the Center for Educational Development and Research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, where for the last three years he has been curating exhibitions in its Learning Resource Center. The art exhibitions, in which artists explore their experiences with such illnesses as Multiple Sclerosis, cancer, dementia, and venereal disease, and the accompanying artist and curator talks provide medical students with very unique personal perspectives on illness and treatment. "A lot of our students have never been ill and have very little experience with life- changing illness or chronic disease," says LuAnn Wilkerson, Ed.D., senior associate dean of education at the School of Medicine. These exhibitions, she explains, offer them "a way to quicken their understanding."

"Arm Amputation Scar" by Ted Meyer, XXX, gouache on vellum, xxxx | Courtesy of the artist.

From September 15 through November 30, Meyer will show his Scarred for Life series at the Learning Resource Center gallery, offering the students a chance to consider the process of emotional healing that typically occurs after patients have left hospital. At the same time as he opens this exhibition locally, Meyer is launching a new website which will serve as a peer-to-peer forum for people with scars all around the world. "I am hoping to take this to the next level to help more people share their survival stories," he explains. "I would really like to make scar prints of Israelis and Palestinians." By helping these people, who have been damaged physically and psychologically by years of warfare, Meyer hopes to contribute to the broader healing of a region scarred by territorial disputes. An inspiring goal indeed from an artist who once thought he might never walk.

Ted Meyer with his "Scarred for Life" print series | Courtesy of the artist.

"Back Scar - T-12 to L-1 Complete" by Ted Meyer, 1997, gouache on vellum, 8 x 18 inches | Courtesy of the artist.

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About the Author

Originally from the UK, Meher McArthur is an independent Asian art historian, author and educator based in Los Angeles. She has two exhibitions currently touring the U.S.: "Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami" (th...
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