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Making Art from Itches

Itchy Face, Colored Pencil and Graphite on Photograph, 19 X 13 inches
Itchy Face, Colored Pencil and Graphite on Photograph, 19 X 13 inches

I was really close to my grandfather on my mother’s side and spent much of my youth with him and my grandmother, as my mother worked the late shift at the local hospital and they watched me and my brother every night. We also had dinner with them every weekend until I left for graduate school. He taught me about family, work, commitment, and life. In 2001 he was diagnosed with cancer and died soon after. When he passed away I was a pallbearer at his funeral. While sitting in the front of Saint Mary’s Church in Westfield, MA, I started to feel an intense itching sensation. It was unbearable and I couldn’t control it. I tried to move uncomfortably in my suit to scratch it, but nothing worked. I just had to live with it and let it run its course.

Self Portrait Polaroid, 2000

After this experience, I began to think about why I had had such an intense itching sensation at that particularly emotional time. I started to research itching and eventually began to make drawings as a means to investigate this phenomenon. I often think of making art as a form of experimentation / investigation, akin to scientific study. What interested me most was the fact that the reasons why we itch are vague and therefore this seemed like a rich space in which to make art – what does itching look like? So, I began to investigate.

Itchy Face 1, Colored Pencil and Graphite on Photograph, 19 X 13 inches

Itchy Face 2, Colored Pencil and Graphite on Photograph, 19 X 13 inches

Itchy Face 3, Colored Pencil and Graphite on Photograph, 19 X 13 inches


At the time, I remember reading that itching was a sensation between pain and pleasure. There are still questions today about how to classify itching – why it occurs and how it causes the need to scratch. There are environmental factors, of course, as well as contagious itching and various other medical conditions that cause itching. My experience didn’t seem to be explained by this research so I began to experiment on myself. The role of self-experimentation in psychology and medicine has long fascinated me – the memory studies of Herman Ebbinghaus attempted to quantify memory loss, and David G. Bailey, in 1989, while researching the effects of drinking alcohol while taking the drug felodipine, accidentally discovered that grapefruit juice suppressed an enzyme responsible for breaking down many drugs.

For my first experiments, I stood in my studio, closed my eyes and concentrated on an intense experience that I had previously had, and waited for an itch to occur on my head. When it did, I marked the spot with a colored pastel, and photographed myself with a polaroid camera to document the experiment. I made several of these and then decided to make a daily series in which I connected several itches into patterns. For me, this act was a way to give visual form to the manifestation of an emotional experience into a physical sensation. It was my attempt to map an invisible process that happens to us every day.

Chest and Back (Progress Shot), Watercolor and Ink on Paper

Chest and Back, Watercolor, Ink, Colored Pencil and Graphite on Paper, 56 X 56 inches

Detail, Chest and Back

After this initial experiment, I decided to map itches across my entire body. For the drawing “Scratch”, I stood in my studio (completely nude) and concentrated on an intense emotional experience. When one occurred, I marked it in Sharpie on my body and then documented these with photographs and measurements. I cut the drawing paper to my exact height and transcribed these itch locations, along with other pertinent information such as external temperature, humidity, etc. The orientation of the X marks corresponds to the front or back of my body (i.e. an X slated to the right indicates an itch on my back, while one to the left occurred on the front). After noting all the itch points, I started to connect them and filled the forms with patterns derived from both my personal observations about this sensation and the research I had been doing – I translated this information into the number of shapes I drew, the colors I used, etc. The circular areas, in addition to the lines that differentiate the layers of the pattern, are the result of my initial attempts to connect the itch spots. I utilized these ‘searching’ lines as the foundation for the drawing’s overall structure and patterning. Around the form are notes I took while making it.

Overall, I thought of this work as a way to create a physical body from the manifestation of an emotional experience into a physical sensation – a body made from its itches. The entire body of works (included here) represent my attempts to reveal patterns inherent in the mind / body relationship. As we feel emotions, we feel physical sensation, which then makes us feel emotionally again. To be continued…