Everybody hurts

Mark Collen

Photo By Larry Dalton

As the old adage goes, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. For Mark Collen , founder of the Pain Exhibit , these are words to live by. After spending the greater part of his life with chronic physical pain, one day, Collen discovered a new medium for expressing it: art. Inspired by the therapeutic results, Collen founded the Pain Exhibit, a gathering of visual artwork by people living with chronic pain. Much more than just a collection of art, it’s a voice for chronic-pain sufferers worldwide.

What is the Pain Exhibit?

The Pain Exhibit is an educational visual-arts exhibit that features artists with chronic pain. These artists come from all across the globe, and their art expresses some facet of the pain experience, whether it’s torture, fear, acceptance, love, hope or any other feeling that someone will go through in dealing with chronic pain.

What is the mission behind the exhibit?

The mission of the exhibit is to give a voice to the many who suffer in abject silence and to educate health-care providers and the public about chronic pain. There are estimates that up to 120 million people in America suffer from chronic pain. And my guess is that less than 10 percent of those people are effectively treated. The idea is to use art as a tool in communicating the pain experience.

How did the idea for the Pain Exhibit come about?

The way it got started was as a direct result of my own negative experience in trying to find treatment. One day, I was going through a terrible pain episode, and I started creating a piece of art about the emotions that I was going through. I ended up finishing the piece that day and found that it was really cathartic to create art around the pain experience. And so, I kept doing more and more pieces about my pain, relating different facets of it, until one day, I thought, “You know, it would be interesting to know if other people around the world are doing the same thing.” And that’s when I decided, naively, of course, “Why don’t I find out?”

What kind of response did you get?

It was shocking. In putting out the call for art, I got more than 500 pieces. At first, the submissions would just dribble in. And when I got the first 15 submissions, I remember thinking, “Yes! I have enough to justify the exhibit.” But by the last week leading up to the submission deadline, I was just getting piles of packages on my front door. It was unbelievable.

How can pain art be used to educate others about chronic pain?

When an individual has chronic pain, you can’t see it. I am a fit, healthy person. You would never know that I have chronic pain. And on one hand, that’s good, because you can hide it rather easily. But on the other hand, it’s very bad, because it means that a doctor can’t see it, either. A lot of times, if a doctor is shown art that effectively expresses a person’s chronic pain, the doctor is able to better understand it. The beauty of pain art is that it communicates the pain experience far more effective than words ever could.

What do you hope to accomplish?

I want to continue to have medical schools using the images for education. Right now, physicians from Harvard and Stanford are using the art in medical education. I’d also like to have a catalog made, which would go into the offices of pain doctors across the world, so that people can use pain art to explain the pain they’re going through. I’m also hoping to raise money to tour the exhibit so that people can see the art in person. It’s powerful to look at the images, but when you see them in person, it makes all the difference in the world.

How has the experience affected you?

It’s been really phenomenal. It’s been difficult and challenging, but I don’t regret anything. I have an e-mail and letter file—I call it my positive-vibe file. It’s full of e-mails and letters that people have sent me from all over, saying how much they love the site. And I’ll open it up and read a few of them when things get tough, and that really makes you feel good. Sometimes, it can be hard because I’m doing all of this more or less alone, but I just feel that it’s something that has to be done. I feel that this stuff has to get out there so that people can get the treatment they need.

How can someone get involved with the exhibit?

Anyone who’d like to get involved can do so by checking out www.painexhibit.com or by calling (916) 362-0363. Any donation, whether it’s someone’s time or it’s help with funding, would be great. It’s been kind of an uphill battle in getting help so far, but I’m confident that the exhibit will be successful.