Artist Lisa Toboz: Dwell

Jul 16, 2019 5:54PM

published in PRYME Editions Written by Anne Silver, August 31, 2018

“Healing is more about accepting the pain and finding a way to peacefully co-exist with it. In the sea of life, pain is a tide that will ebb and weave, continually. We need to learn how to let it wash over us, without drowning in it. Our life doesn't have to end where the pain begins, but rather, it is where we start to mend.” ― Jaeda DeWalt

The capacity for healing that art brings about is monumental. When I worked as a psychotherapist, I often held sessions with my clients where they were invited to make art. The outcome was irrelevant; it wasn't about creating a pretty picture. What mattered, in this case was the pause, the intention, the process. The point of these sessions was to find another way to express all the fears and questions and losses and worries and hopes that were swirling about like whirlpools around inside their heads, to give voice to all those things for which there are oftentimes no words. Sometimes words fail us. Our language, while powerful, vast, and lyrical, can fall short. How often have poets struggled to find just the right turns of phrase to describe a joy, a loss, a heartache? Thankfully, we have poets to help us make sense of the unfathomable, but not all of us has the ability to convey things in those terms. Art can fill in those gaps. It allows us to express emotion in an entirely different way, one which bypasses the language areas of the brain and yet speaks loudly and clearly. Art helps us heal, and it connects us to others. It becomes a place where we start to mend. It takes courage to dig deep and lend our artistic voice to the things that would make our speaking voice quaver, and it takes immense talent and finesse to do it in such a way that leaves the viewer stunned by the beauty of what she is seeing. Lisa Toboz is one of the bravest and most authentic artists I know. In her Dwell series, Lisa not only confronts, but reconciles, the scary terrain of illness and wellness, mortality and life, loss and healing. As a member of the instant photography community, her kindness is palpable, cutting through the coldness of the platform that is the internet with warmth and encouragement. The world needs more authentic kindness. But Lisa's bravery in continuing to create gorgeous, ethereal photos as a way of coping with her cancer diagnosis and treatment... now that is truly inspiring! Most people would have been compelled to hide, perhaps hunkering down into a self-protective bunker while going through the process of surgery and chemotherapy. Not Lisa. Her grace in coexisting with her illness and in not letting it overtake her, in not allowing herself to drown in it, is a model that we would all do well to aspire to, regardless of our struggles. Lisa's work and her process beautifully illustrate the concept of resilience.I recently had the honor of speaking with Lisa and asked her to a tell a little bit about her Dwell series, the process of creating it and what it has come to mean to her as she has continued on the road to recovery and healing.

Lisa tells us:"The Dwell series explores the worlds of illness and healing, and how photography joins the two, showing that sickness does not mean one is confined to a bed. We go about our daily lives, quite possibly not knowing anything is 'wrong,' and often, a chronic illness is left unspoken, remaining a secret to outsiders. Using Polaroid film, I navigate these public and private spheres through dreamlike self-portraiture sequences, bridging the house of sickness to the road of remission - one where I come through to the other side transformed.

"Dwell came about during a year of first, being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune condition, which later was discovered to be connected to lymphoma. All of this came as a shock because aside from the autoimmune rash and some fatigue, I felt 'normal' - no pain or apparent cancer symptoms. To know that a tumor was growing behind my left rib cage was surreal. And because I felt normal, it was easier to go about daily life working, socializing, and taking photos.

"As the tumor grew, so did my need to create. It’s not something of which I was completely aware in the beginning of the project, but I realize now that with each photo I took, I was leaving behind a memento mori of sorts. I had read a lot about spirit photography, and how film was manipulated to make 'ghosts' of loved ones appear. There is an ethereal quality to these works, and it comforted me to think of ways that photography not only records physical presence, but also an intangible one: how do we document our inner world? Friends had asked if I would be documenting my cancer experience through photography, and I realized I had already been doing this with Dwell, just not in a documentary style. What interested me more was coming to terms with mortality by leaving behind some kind of record and showing a side of chronic illness that only the chronically ill can understand: that life keeps pushing forward, despite the difficulty.

"In our previous conversations, you had asked if making self-portraits also helped me maintain my identity as 'Lisa' as opposed to 'someone with cancer.' When I learned I would be losing my hair to chemo, the first thing I thought was, now everybody will know. Part of Dwell’s role was keeper of secrets, showing how art persists, despite everything being seemingly okay. As I had surgery, then chemotherapy, the physical changes couldn’t be concealed any longer, so I had to be braver about sharing this with outsiders; the only way that felt natural was through art. I felt less afraid and more connected to and in control of my disease through photography. I often wondered not why this happened, but how, and marveled that despite my body creating such a thing as a splenic tumor, I could keep going about my business. Self-portraits became a visual diary of ongoing treatments, serving practical purposes in creative ways. They also became a validation of my existence, proof that I walked through this tiny life at some point in time, leaving an artifact by which to remember me."

Lisa Toboz earned her MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh and is a copy editor for TABLE magazine. Her instant film work can be found in various publications including Shots Magazine, The Hand Magazine, and as a featured artist in She Shoots Film: Self Portraits. Her work explores self-portraiture and the forgotten landscapes in and around the rust-belt region, primarily through integral film. She has exhibited internationally and is a member of the 12.12 Project, an instant-film artists’ collective that interprets monthly themes through analog techniques. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, artist Jeff Schreckengost.