First, a blurred patch obscures her view. Then coloured zig-zags impair most of her sight. These are the forty-minute migraines that Isabelle Neumand turns into paintings.
We spoke to the artist on the effects of these episodes on her life and work.
“You’re leading your normal life, and all of a sudden you’re losing your vision,” began Ms Neumand, 27. “It’s a strange feeling.”
Ms Neumand’s episodes are caused by migraine with aura, a condition affecting fewer than 4% of the UK population, explained Dr Chris Blatchley of the London Migraine Clinic. A headache is accompanied by sensory disturbances, called auras, which may include flashes of light and blind spots on the vision, and tingling on the hands or face.
Despite sharing the hereditary condition with her mother and brother, Ms Neumand learnt of the episodes aged 13, when she unexpectedly lost her vision at school. 14 years later, Ms Neumand’s episodes can still occur monthly. “There’s a part of me that thinks I need to go somewhere and make sure I’m safe,” she admitted.
Yet Ms Neumand appeared determined to approach her condition positively. “The first time was definitely scary but I know that I can deal with it” she continued. “I’m thankful that I don’t get it so often that I can’t live a normal life.”
She now considers the migraines a sign to relax. “Stress is a trigger for migraines” Ms Neumand, an NHS wellbeing practitioner, explained. “In a way they force me to stop and slow down.”
She described the experience of her visual auras, known as scintillating scotoma. “At the beginning it’s a blurry patch in the middle of your vision. That circular patch becomes an arc, within which you have zig-zags,” she said. Ms Neumand continued, tracing the auras’ motion with her fingers. “The arc becomes bigger until it fills and escapes your field of vision,” she added.
But Ms Neumand conceded the difficulty of convey this experience. “You are experiencing something that people can’t always see,” she observed.
Instead, she uses watercolours to represent her auras’ vivid patterns. Her paintings seem indicative of her positive approach to her condition, translating a complex personal experience with a spirited Kandinskian quality. “People worried if I was okay, but I don’t see it that way,” Ms Neumand remarked. “I’ve had this migraine and this good thing has happened as a result.”
Having praised painting’s stress-busting potential, Ms Neumand revealed her plans to combine similar activities into a mindfulness yoga programme.
The ‘Yoga for the Mind’ programme, in development with Kensington and Chelsea Council, will include drawing, breathing, and gratitude exercises. “The idea is to do mindfulness and creative exercises to get you to think about how you are feeling differently,” Ms Neumand outlined.
While lockdown has suspended the programme’s development, she has directed her efforts to producing yoga videos focused on exploring the senses.
Ms Neumand’s plan embodies the same optimism found in her paintings. She said: “I’ve taken the time to experience those migraines, understand them, what I need and what I can get with them. Anyone can experience anything negative but find the positive.”