Artist and puppet designer Corina Duyn has been exploring the internal landscape of illness in her work since she was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) in 1998. Corina reflects on how her art making has evolved and new avenues of discovery have opened up as she challenges the limitations of the body with the demands of a creative mind.
My Art and M.E.: The Demands of a Creative Mind
What does one do with a creative mind that continues its battle to be heard? A mind that will not rest until the journey of understanding life lived with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) is deemed complete? It seems I have to comply with its demands to reach the point of knowing the work is done.
Before illness irrevocably changed my life 22 years ago, I worked as a professional Doll Artist depicting Irish life and folklore. In illness my creative mind demanded to explore my inner landscape instead. I resisted. I failed. I blamed hard work as a self-employed artist for becoming ill. I vowed to never engage with art again. Yet having lost my ability to sculpt, I found myself drawing very basic sketches: Eggs, birds, ladders, and even drawings about not wanting to be creative… Reluctantly I accepted the power of my creative mind to help me heal.
To understand this new language of illness I consulted the dictionary. For a drawing of an egg standing upright on a pillow, a hand reaching out of the broken top, the dictionary told me that ‘eggs have the capability of growing into a new individual.’ That made sense. I was so very ill. I had an opportunity to start life again.
Eggs hatched, fledglings emerged, birds tentatively left the nest and started to fly. With the publication of my first book ‘Hatched – a Creative Journey Through M.E.’ (2006) I truly believed I could put M.E. on the shelf and move on with my life. I was improving, but certainly not recovered. Years later, when sculpting again, I made a series of figures on tree roots. Acceptance had set in. I became more ‘rooted’. Perhaps I hadn’t been flying freely as a bird, but had been flying away from my reality.
I can only safely work twenty minutes a day. The benefit of this slow progress is that the true story reveals itself over the months it takes to finish a piece of work. With ‘Birth Dance’ (2016), a dance between a young woman and a crane bird, I realised that it begged for the transition back to puppetry. To movement. To dance with life again. To take my rightful place back in society after many years of often being housebound.
For one hour a week, I became an ‘Artist in the Community’ through facilitating the ‘Life Outside the Box’ puppet project with fellow members at the Dungarvan IWA Resource Centre. A very empowering project in terms of the emerging story of stepping out of society’s disability box, but also for me personally: I was teaching again after a 17-year gap, albeit with support. This project catapulted me into the world of puppetry at the first Broken Puppet Symposium (Cork, 2017). I became immersed in the powerful intersection of puppetry, disability and health. This groundbreaking event led to lecturing opportunities worldwide, some in person, now only via video link.
My body, however, renewed its efforts to challenge my creative mind. Or is it the other way around? Three years ago, I lost the ability to hold the cross of my marionette puppets. I devised a puppet which I could animate on my lap while seated in the wheelchair. A year later I could no longer sculpt my puppets. During a spell in hospital early in 2019 I sought mentoring support from puppet master Dr. Emma Fisher to find a way forward.
Working on what turned into the ‘Invisible Octopus’ project inexplicably forced me to examine and establish the truth about what is my normal. I had to come face to face – puppet to face – with my strengths and weaknesses. My creative enthusiasm was not enough to bring the many ideas into being. My mental wellbeing thrived while my physical wellbeing suffered in equal measure. Puppetry forced me to look deep into my reality. Poetry defined the experience.
The introduction to shadow puppetry brought me renewed creative freedom. I am able to cut paper puppets and other images while lying in my recliner. With each single tiny movement on the overhead projector, I portray my story on the opposite wall. It is powerful beyond words. My previous work is often translated into a sense of beauty, light and hope into a dark situation. With shadow work there is no hiding. It is stark. Clear. After the creation of the two-minute ‘Invisible Octopus’ video-poem I said out loud to myself: ‘my work is done.’ With the 12 images accompanying the 12 stanzas of my poem I had transformed pain into poetry.
This work became the basis of the shared ‘Ribbon of Light’ exhibition in 2020. My last public exhibition. It was simply all too much. I now rarely leave my home but I did get to visit the exhibition on the very first day. Due to Covid-19 we had no official opening. The immensity of seeing my work on the gallery wall was both beautiful and difficult. The following day the Government imposed Level 3 restrictions. Galleries were to be closed. Art about isolation in isolation.
Visiting the ‘Ribbon of Light’ exhibition (still from video https://youtu.be/QyQJ28K_RdY)
I am having difficulty comprehending that this final big work might be forever hidden. But it simply can’t be the end of my story. It feels too personal. Hidden. Yet again. I am experiencing a sense of numbness. Having no desire to create and having trouble writing. There is a great need to retreat. (Partly due to other life events.) However, an image of a suitcase keeps entering my mind. Is this the next work to be created? If so, as yet I don’t see the connection with M.E. Perhaps I have on that front fulfilled the demands of my creative mind. My work on M.E. is done.
 Funded by the Arts Council/Create Artist in the Community scheme 2016.
Corina Duyn trained as a nurse and social care worker in her native Netherlands. She became a professional Doll Artist after her move to Ireland in 1989. Nine years later her life changed dramatically due to the sudden onset of the disabling condition Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.). Her latest art comes in the form of ‘Invisible Octopus’: a poem, a story, an animation of a life triumphant under the weight of illness. Words and images are her lifeline to connect with the world beyond the walls of her home.
I can only safely work twenty minutes a day. The benefit of this slow progress is that the true story reveals itself over the months it takes to finish a piece of work.