Today is the 103rd anniversary of the birth of the acclaimed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s birth. Kahlo’s life offers an inspiring example of how art and creativity can help us live rich and fulfilling lives despite trauma or pain.
When she was six years old, Kahlo contracted polio, which left one leg smaller than the other, and which she tried to hide with long skirts. She may also have been born with spina bifida. Perhaps it was her own childhood experience of illness and disability that sparked her adolescent interest in medicine. At the age of 18, while taking her pre-med classes, she was critically injured in a bus accident. It’s a wonder she survived: Her injuries from the accident included a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, 11 fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. An iron handrail pierced her abdomen and her uterus, which ultimately prevented her from being able to bear children. As if her physical injuries were not enough to bear, she lost her first love, boyfriend Alejandro, who had been with her on the bus at the time of the accident, but ended their relationship without explanation soon after.
Kahlo spent many months trapped in a body cast. To escape the pain and boredom of her immobilization, she borrowed her father’s little set of travel watercolors, and began to paint. She regained her ability to walk but spent the rest of her life with episodes of severe pain. She spent months at a time in hospitals, underwent 35 operations, and suffered a number of life-threatening miscarriages.
Whenever I am reminded of Kahlo’s story, I think if I were in her situation, I might just give up, watch Real Housewives, and order takeout for the rest of my life. But despite Kahlo’s pain and illnesses, she created a compelling body of more than 200 paintings, about a third of which are self-portraits often depicting her mental and physical torment. For those of you who keep journals, or art journals, Frida was also a prolific art journalist, and published copies of her “diary” show the power of art journaling to blend word and image to foster self-expression and self-awareness.
In addition to her painting, Kahlo led a full, if sometimes tumultuous life. She had a long-term tempestuous marriage to the famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, travelled internationally, had numerous friends across the globe, and was highly engaged in political causes.
Frail and ill for much of the last year of her life, Frida Kahlo died at the age of 47. A few days before her death, on July 13, 1954, she wrote in her diary: “I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return — Frida”
In fact, Frida has never really left us. Virtually unknown during her lifetime, she is one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, and one of the few women artists whose name is recognized by the general public. More importantly she has stayed with us through the lessons she teaches us about transforming grief, pain, loss, and trauma into creative self-expression. Her life was unbearably difficult at times, but it was also joyful. She shows us that we can be creative and purposeful no matter what our circumstances.
A personal note and a bit of synchcronicity: During the summer of 2007, I traveled to Mexico City for the 100th Anniversary Celebration of Frida Kahlo’s birth. I visited an exhibition at Casa Azul, where Kahlo was born and grew up, and stood in a line of nearly 800 people to see the largest exhibit of Kahlo’s work ever mounted at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Yesterday while playing in my art journal, I experimented with one of my art journal teacher Connie’s collage techniques. It involves pasting a picture onto a journal page, then “exaggerating” parts of the picture to create an original work. Without being consciously aware that it was the eve of Kahlo’s birthday, I printed off a copy of a Kahlo painting titled “The Two Fridas” and used that as my starting point for the journal page.
Frida, you’re one of my heroes. I love that you weren’t perfect; I loved that you had moods; but most of all I loved that you seized life by the horns and made it a life worth living.
Who are your heroes, the people who inspire you to live with purpose and vitality despite all obstacles?