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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Time to Spin

Today is January 7 and this day is known as Distaff day.  Other than my friend Julia Cooper, I doubt very many of you will celebrate this day in its traditional way.  Today is the day we leave the Christmas holiday behind us and pick up our work tasks again.

Imagine a world where people carry devices wherever they go.  Whether you are a pauper or princess, this is a world where people rarely go out socially without their technology close at hand.   The line between work and personal life is hopelessly blurred. You cannot even take your kids to the park without pulling out your device and following the most recent thread.  Does this sound like our wired society?

I thought so last January when I first wrote about Distaff Day. Well, I am actually describing the world of the average woman in the Middle Ages.  Back then every woman, regardless of age or rank, was expected to fill their day with meaningful work.  So each woman would carry their spindle and distaff  (also called a rock) with them to social occasions.  Sometimes they would even gather for this purpose and it was called “a rocking” I guess the modern equivalent of that would be a “tweet-up.” It was a constant frenzy of thread creation. 

But there were times that it was considered appropriate to put down the spindle and focus on friends, family and spirituality.  People would “unplug” (Or would that be unlace?) during the 12 days of Christmas. I see a pronounced absence of social media voices during the holidays.  After the “Engage in Grace” blogroll of late November our thought leaders in medicine pause and focus their thoughts on home and family.  During the holidays we set down our “spindles.”

Last Distaff Day I was working on a large painting for the great folks at ElizaAlexDrane had asked me to paint my vision of the company and its mission.  I painted a large triptych entitled “Eliza.”

In this painting the sky is blue and the ground consists of an overwhelming mass of green cables and threads.  Blue and Green are the corporate colors of health care and they provide the foundation to the piece.  Like the ever-changing technology of our times, this foundation seems to writhe and pulse; almost washing away the characters within the painting.

To the far left, I painted a mother at her spinning wheel.  Here thread leaves the distaff and flows to a large loom at the center of the painting.  The large wooden loom is braced above with a vintage phone receiver.  To the lower left a telephone switchboard operator moves cable after cable connecting calls.  This represents the work Eliza does to connect with patients on the telephone. 

A row of patients and their caregivers stand within the flowing cables.  They stand as though on the assembly line, they are placing their needed medication in pillboxes.  The system at Eliza is trying to help them remember this process in health.

To the right and left of the large loom stand two versions of Eliza Doolittle from “My Fair Lady.”  This character is the namesake of the company.  The Eliza on the left is a beautiful maiden holding the coiled phone line in her hands as though spinning at the distaff.  The Eliza on the right is the crone. Her face is haggard and her basket empty.  At the center of the loom a mother figure weaves.  A mother is supposed to run the loom and control the weft and warp of time and technology.  So deeply meshed within this painting is the role of women in care giving that the symbols of this role take up 80% of the painting.

To the lower right a male technician hauls a circuit board across the frame.  Upon its circuits the word Eliza is written in Morse code.   

Beside him and behind him a film reel unspools representing the media Eliza creates to help patient populations. The word Eliza is also written in a swirling font among the cables in the lower center panel.  In this area of the painting, children stare upon the viewer.  

The youngest holds out a smart phone with the word "Eliza." 

These are children are the future beneficiaries of the great work of this company.

In the center behind the loom, the mother figure is time and space itself.  This was not always the case.  In my original attempt at completing this masterpiece, I painted Alex Drane into the composition.   I knew that she was a strong mother in her own family but she was also the public face of Eliza.  She taught me the importance of their work.  She showed me their data sets and thoughtful campaigns to help people attain better health outcomes.

When Alex saw my center panel she felt that I definitely had been inspired by Distaff day.  That would be pronounced Dis-the–Staff.  She was troubled that she took such a prominent place as Eliza Corporation was a team environment.  So I did something a rarely do, I repainted the center figure.

This time I painted Demeter as a mother goddess.  Painting over your own work can be a painful thing, but I said good-bye to Alex.  The new figure was fuller of face with a quiet countenance.  Her hair was the color of straw and bedecked with grains of wheat.  I finished the painting and mailed it to Eliza in May of 2013.

In June at Health Datapalooza, Alex took me quietly aside and told me the she still had trouble with the painting.  She thought the Goddess looked too much like her.  I think I blinked then.  The Goddess was a good 50 pounds heavier than Alex with a completely different nose.       

Alex asked if I would fly to Boston and fix the painting one last time.  On August 2, 2013 I did exactly that.  I walked into the offices of Eliza.  I began to paint while my face felt flushed like that of a child asked to redo a math problem in front of the entire class.  Throughout the day people would stop and talk to me and their energy and warmth came to be the center of the painting. 

The lady in black is crowned with the time the staff of Eliza gave me.  The sun and all the planets of our solar system make her face.  Her hair swirls into a symbolic yin and yang and the mythos of the painting changes.  Both male and female must be in balance to do great work in care giving.  Both leaders and staff must feel part of the whole.

I am glad I was able to fly to Boston and complete the painting.  I was able to present it before Alex and the staff and acknowledge their concerns.  I told them Alex was the public face of Eliza.  So she greatly inspired the piece.  But nothing should stop them from being part of the worldwide conversation in health care.  They should blog, facebook and tweet.  They should become a public face of this amazing organization.  

They should join the Walking Gallery and tell the world their stories.

Last week Suzanne Carter, data analyst from Eliza, did exactly that.  Her jacket addresses the need for affordable hearing aids and is entitled: “Analyzing Whispers.”  

Thank you Suzanne, Alex and all the staff of Eliza for being part of my celebration of Distaff Day.   I look forward to seeing the new threads we create in 2014.


  1. I think that is great you work with patients as well as healthcare organizations to continue to get your message across of patient advocacy. This painting will definitely inspire people to create better healthcare solutions for patients and healthcare providers.

  2. It is amazing that your work is able to touch so many people in so many different ways. Not only is it beautiful, you are able to spread your message of patient advocacy all around the world. It is amazing that you were able to work with the people at Eliza and from that came another jacket mural for the Walking Gallery.

  3. It’s amazing how much thought and creativity just goes into the concepts behind the painting. I love the wire symbolism, how the wires act as the fabric that connects people together and also as the grass, the foundation for the natural landscape. And I can’t imagine how difficult it is to have to go back and change a piece once you’re satisfied with it. I admire that you were willing to make the changes to best suit the Eliza teams needs even if they conflicted with your own expectations for the piece.”

  4. The Walking Gallery and all of your paintings are very interesting. Painting these images to represent such deep topics is a truly unique concept. It is a great way to raise awareness through the arts and share individual's valuable stories. It is nice to see how widespread the impact of the program has been on social media. People are able to express themselves through your artwork, and share their opinions and personal stories. This is inspiring because it provides a way to bring life to our stories and share them with people we might not otherwise have the opportunity to. The colors in your paintings are very beautiful and the creativity and energy that flows from each make me admire your work.

  5. Thanks, Regina. You are sort of a special lady to share this tough stuff with people. Braveheart is your middle name. LOve you and all you do. Joe spent about 3 weeks in 2 hospitals last yhear and now I will be prepared for any future stays in one of those terible facilities.