At first, Gillian Genser thought the headaches and vomiting were just the latest signs of autoimmune disorders she had battled for years. But then the symptoms got stranger. She felt agitated. She’d wake up nearly unable to move. Hearing vanished from one ear. Her muscles cramped and her speech slurred.
What was going on? For years, doctors were baffled by what was afflicting the Toronto-based sculptor.
Then, a blood test three years ago came back positive for heavy-metal poisoning. And Genser realized her art was killing her.
“I was flabbergasted,” Genser, 59, told The Washington Post. “Absolutely flabbergasted."
For 15 years, Genser had been grinding up mussel shells to create a sculpture of Adam, the first man. She had no idea, though, that mussels can accumulate toxins, like lead and arsenic, over years of feeding in polluted waters. When Genser breathed in the shell dust or touched the powdery remains, some of that metal made its way into her body, too.
For Genser, who first wrote about her case in Toronto Life magazine on Nov. 28, the poisoning is deeply ironic. By using a natural material, like mussel shells, to depict a biblical character, she wanted to comment on humanity’s skewed relationship with the now-contaminated natural world.
“The work was an environmental statement. It’s about reconsidering what people’s first perception of the ecosystem should have been, rather than this idea that we have dominion over all the animals,” she said. “So it’s very interesting and ironic that Adam, as the first man, was so toxic. He poisoned me. Doesn’t that make sense, because we poisoned the world starting with this very poor notion?“
Genser began sculpting with unorthodox media in 1991, when she started selling small sculptures in Toronto made from egg shells before moving on to projects crafted with coral, bones, and plants. In 1998, she finished a sculpture of Lilith, the first woman in Jewish folklore, made from egg shells. She decided her next project would be the first man, Adam, and soon found the perfect material to make him: blue mussel shells from Canada’s Atlantic coast, bought in bulk in Toronto’s Chinatown.
She loved how the shells looked — “The mussel shells are fabulous for replicating muscle striations” — and felt good about sculpting with a substance taken straight from a nearby ecosystem.
She’d spend up to 12 hours a day molding the shells with a dentist’s drill. While she ventilated her studio, she didn’t make any special effort to avoid the shell byproducts, assuming they were benign.
But almost immediately after starting the work, Genser started feeling ill. After years living with various autoimmune disorders, she was used to her body betraying her. But she soon realized these symptoms were different. As her limbs alternately ached and became immobile, she suffered neurological ailments as well. At her worst moments, she could barely speak, lost her short-term memory and stopped recognizing close friends.
She saw a litany of specialists in neurological health and psychiatrists who prescribed antipsychotics and antidepressants, but nothing seemed to help.
“To be fair to my doctors, they did ask me, ‘Are you working with anything toxic?’ And I’d say, ‘No no, I’m working with all natural materials, and we’d all move on,’” she said. “I was so certain that these mussels, which the government said I could eat safely and buy in the market as food, could never be bad for me.”
It wasn’t until 2015 when Genser first saw a specialist who tested her blood for heavy metals. The results were emphatic: She had high levels of arsenic and lead in her system. She was shocked, but still confused — as to how had she ingested those dangerous compounds?
That’s when she talked to a professor at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum who specialized in invertebrates. The specialist was horrified that she had used mussel shells for years in her work. “He told me, ‘People don’t realize how poisonous these things are,’” she said.
Genser immediately stopped working with the shells but she said she has had little luck treating her condition. She described her quality of life as “poor,” and still suffers memory lapses and nausea. She said she will be at a higher risk of neurological diseases, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
But she doesn’t hold any of that pain against the aquatic creatures whose shells secretly wrecked her body.
“I stop to think about the mussels and how they cannot leave their polluted habitats we have just dumped all this poison into,” she said. “I feel terrible grief for them. We did this to them, they didn’t do it to me.”
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