After 15 Years, Sculptor Finds Source of Illness: Her Own Art

Gillian Genser worked with mussel shells, ended up with heavy-metal poisoning
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 3, 2018 9:07 AM CST
Updated Dec 8, 2018 3:40 PM CST
Sculptor Discovers Source of Her Illness: Her Own Art
Mussels.   (Getty/sketchleyprints)

Gillian Genser is a Canadian sculptor who works only with natural materials, and in Toronto Life magazine, she recounts her own personal medical mystery. About 20 years ago, she began suffering debilitating symptoms such as constant headaches, frequent vomiting, aching muscles, and cramped hands. Specialists couldn't figure it out. Did she work with toxic materials, they'd ask? Nope, only natural ones, particularly crushed mussel shells for a large sculpture of the biblical figure Adam she'd been working on. "I spent up to 12 hours a day grinding and sanding the shells to fit into the shape of Adam’s body," she writes. The symptoms continued for 15 years, then worsened significantly in 2013. It was around that time that she visited a museum and learned mussels absorbed toxins in their environment.

Subsequent tests revealed high levels of arsenic and lead in her blood—she had chronic heavy-metal poisoning. "My body was carrying a painful message about the poisoning that Earth is experiencing," she writes. The 59-year-old Genser immediately stopped working with the shells, of course, but she continues "to live with many neurological and metabolic symptoms" and says she will never fully recover. Genser tells the Washington Post that she finds it "interesting and ironic" that her statue of Adam, intended as an environmental statement about man's perceived dominion over nature, ended up being the main culprit. Not that she blames the mussels. “I feel terrible grief for them," she says. "We did this to them, they didn’t do it to me.” (Read her full essay, entitled "My beautiful death," here.)

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