The face of an angel in the photo above belongs to my friend, artist Linda Bleck. She is floating in a pool of milk. When I asked Linda if she would submerge herself in milk for a photograph, she said, “Sure!” (Which, incidentally, is the same answer she gave her husband when he proposed marriage.)
Why a milk bath?
Linda suffers from chronic pain stemming from congenital biomechanical issues. She has endured two hip replacements and two spinal surgeries. Part of Linda’s survival strategy is to float. “Water has saved me,” Linda told me last year as we soaked in her backyard hot tub.
You can see the influence of water in Linda’s art. Her favorite medium is gouache and watercolor. She paints mermaids, fish, underwater idylls. She painted me on a river in my Finder Not Keeper canoe, paddling past the variegated solomon’s seal growing along the banks.
So I thought that capturing Linda suspended in milk, painlessly floating amidst a scattering of flowers and swirling paint could be beautiful. (Truthfully, she did doze off momentarily during the shoot and her face looked even more peaceful.)
About that chronic pain. It was like the wave of pink paint in the photos above that slid quietly, sneakily, ceaselessly, into Linda’s life until one day, she found herself completely surrounded. As an illustrator with a prestigious list of editorial clients and multiple book deals with major publishing houses, Linda didn’t have time for pain. She was fresh off the success of designing, writing, and illustrating an entire series of pop-up books about “Pepper the Dog.” Even sweeter, she had been selected to illustrate two long-forgotten manuscripts by Margaret Wise Brown, “The Moon Shines Down,” and “The Tickly Spider.”
She forced herself to complete the books. And during that difficult period, Linda’s process changed. “I had to become less restricted. As my body got tight, my work got loose. I learned that the work got easier if I let it flow.”
A bright side to the darkness of chronic pain? Perhaps. But one cannot minimize the toll on every aspect of Linda’s existence. “I didn’t like my life,” she said. “I had very little energy in the tank. I had ideas in my head but I couldn’t execute them.”
For an artist, this inability to produce must have been torture — a kind of muzzling.
One day, after a particularly grueling session trying to walk, Linda’s daughter Sarah suggested that Linda participate in the Inktober challenge on Instagram. This meant inking and posting one drawing every day throughout the month of October.
“It brought me out of isolation,” said Linda. “I could escape to a global environment. I didn’t feel as lonely.”
The daily prompts seemed like games to Linda. Without fees attached or editors to please, Linda felt liberated. She could focus on something away from the pain.
“I’d think about the idea all day, then sit down and draw quickly. My husband would come home and punch up the caption. It was a nice thing for us to do as a couple. We didn’t have to talk about the other things bothering us that we didn’t have any control over.”
Linda acknowledges that the years of suffering have changed her profoundly. She continues to try all kinds of therapies to assuage her discomfort, and she is not afraid of alternative approaches. During physical therapy, she employs the same tools she uses when drawing. “I visualize the muscle and its structure and then I implement the exercise. Just like a piece of artwork, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
She has also relied on traditional pharmaceuticals, which she keeps stashed in her sewing basket. “Mama’s little mending kit,” she calls it. Evidence that she hasn’t yet used up her prescription of “humor pills”, because God knows how you get a refill on those.
This morning, I stopped by Linda’s and she tells me she is really feeling better. It has been a year since she vowed to take a break. “If something doesn’t bring me joy,” she say, “I’m not going to belabor it.” Yet she is full of ideas for more books and even a medical app.
As I show her the final edits of the milk bath pics, I comment on her willingness to take this kind of artistic risk. “Remember the time you and I mooned those kids on the highway?” I’m referring to an escapade from our high school days. She doesn’t remember, though I can tell you that she sketched it most charmingly in my yearbook back in 1981. Ah yes, her raw talent was evident very early on. (Her pretty skin, too.)
“You were always game,” I laugh. She is sitting straight and strong in her hard kitchen chair, a woodpecker lurking outside the window and Huey the Wonder Dog nipping at the computer. She shrugs and looks at me, eyes bright. “Design is life,” she says. “We get to choose what to paint on our canvas.”
Follow Linda on Instagram. Check out her website. For behind-the-scene pics of this milk bath photo shoot, which we nicknamed the milktastrophe, click here. And if you care to leave a comment, Linda and I would both love it. Perhaps you would like to tell us which photo is your favorite?
Photos by Renn Kuhnen.