Blending Science With Art: One Artist’s Journey With Crohn’s Disease
After being diagnosed with Crohn’s, Suzanne Hellums combined her background in science with her childhood love of art.
Suzanne Hellums, 49, still remembers the first art lesson she ever took. She was 10 years old, full of energy and curiosity. A good student, particularly in math and science, Hellums was eager to try her hand at something new.
When Hellums arrived at her first lesson, her teacher, a woman from her church near Memphis, Tennessee, asked her to draw a black-and-white picture of Benjamin Franklin — upside down.
“She said, ‘I don’t want you to think with your left brain,’” Hellums said. “She wanted me to mimic the curves and the shading.” When she finished, Hellums turned the picture around and examined it. “It was pretty close,” she recalled.
Hellums learned a lot about art over the next few years, including how to sketch and use watercolor pencils. But about three years later, her hobby was put on hold. That’s when the first major signs of Crohn’s disease started to appear.
A Crohn’s Diagnosis
Just as Hellums, then 14 years old, and her parents were moving to a new home in northern Mississippi, she came down with what she thought was the stomach flu. The worst of it subsided after two weeks, but even after recovering, she still had some occasional symptoms, such as stomach pain. Her doctor told her that she just had food poisoning or a “nervous stomach,” which confused Hellums, since she wasn’t a nervous person.
“My parents didn’t understand what was going on with me,” she says. “I couldn’t seem to keep on any weight. I was really thin and pale. My stomach was extremely distended at times.” At one point, she lost so much weight that when she carried her books on her hips, bruises would appear.
Then one day, when she was 17, Hellums went back to the pediatrician’s office. The doctor took one look at her, she says, and sent her to the local emergency room. The doctors at the ER then sent her to a hospital in Memphis, which was two hours away.
At the time, Hellums was confused. Her symptoms had been dismissed for years, but now, she suddenly needed to get to a hospital immediately. After she was admitted and the doctors there ran tests on her, she learned why: Hellums had severe intestinal bleeding, and her blood platelets were so high that the doctors thought she had leukemia.
Hellums remained in the hospital for two weeks. During that time, doctors and residents came in and out of her room, taking measurements, doing blood draws, and running tests. Once they did an endoscopy, the doctors found out what was wrong: Hellums had Crohn’s disease, a chronic, autoimmune condition that’s characterized by inflammation in the gut. (She’d likely been living with it for three years before it was finally diagnosed.)
“I didn’t know what Crohn’s disease was,” Hellums says. “I just asked, ‘Is there a cure?’ When they said, ‘No, there’s no cure,’ that was the part that broke my heart.”
Looking back, she realizes that the doctors were trying to manage her expectations. Despite being in the hospital, Hellums, who was a junior in high school, was trying to catch up on her schoolwork and schedule makeup tests. “I think they probably saw that and thought, She needs to slow down,” she says.
Finding a Career … and a Way Back to Art
After being discharged, Hellums managed her condition with corticosteroids — a go-to medication for autoimmune conditions at the time. They worked. Hellums was able to regain some weight and return to school. After graduation, she met her future husband at college, where she majored in clinical laboratory science. The degree would help her land her first job doing medical lab work.
Her experience with Crohn’s influenced her decision to get a degree that would allow her to pursue her love of science while also helping others. “I always wanted to know why something happens,” she says.
While working in the lab, Hellums also went to graduate school, where she did research in biochemistry and graduated three years later. But her Crohn’s would occasionally flare up, and she was later diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), an inflammatory disease that can cause the bones in the spine to fuse. (About 2 to 3 percent of people with inflammatory bowel disease — more often Crohn’s disease than ulcerative colitis — also have AS, according to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.)
The conditions took their toll, and eventually, Hellums could no longer work full-time. “I wasn’t capable of doing a whole lot,” she says, during that time.
In 1999, Hellums and her husband moved to Alaska. Her love of art had always remained, so she put her talents to use by painting and remodeling her house. Years later, after her son was born and grew older, she painted an abstract picture of Tatooine, from Star Wars, on his bedroom wall.
“That was a bit much,” Hellums says, “but after that, I thought I could do some smaller things.”
She started painting small pictures for people as gifts: landscapes, pets, buildings. “People said they liked it,” Hellums says, “but in my mind, I didn’t know if it was fine art or not.”
Eventually, people began asking her if she was “with a gallery.” The expression confused Hellums at the time. “I thought, Is that something you’re supposed to do?” she says. Once she began researching galleries, she was also intimidated to paint a “big” picture, especially because her Tatooine painting had been so labor intensive.
In October 2017, Hellums emailed ArtLifting, an online gallery that sells artwork by artists with chronic conditions or housing insecurity. After viewing her work, the company responded with an offer of representation, and Hellums has been creating artwork for them ever since.
Blending a Love of Art and Chemistry?
Hellums’s background in science and chemistry shows through her artwork. In her piece Molecular Channel Blocker, Hellums heated polymers with raw pigment powder to create an image of a calcium channel blocker. Her prints and paintings of sunsets and the sea are also reminiscent of biochemistry; they’re so deep and layered that they appear as if they’re moving.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to uncouple [chemistry and art],” she says. “There’s just this part of me that says, ‘I just really want to see what happens if I add this to that, what reaction do I get?’ I can’t help it.”
Hellums often experiments with different mediums, such as acrylic, ink, resin, and mica. “I want to look at how a chemical reaction happens within two different mediums,” she says.
Resin, in particular, is fascinating to paint with, she says. “It does not look anything like what you start out with when it’s wet; when it’s dry, it’s completely different,” she says. “It’s almost shocking and fearful, but awe inspiring at the same time.”
The process of creating a painting can be slow going for Hellums. Some of it, she says, is literally “watching paint dry,” since different mediums take longer than others to dry or cure. A painting that’s 2 x 3 feet can take a minimum of 3 to 4 months for her to create.
Hellums has painted everything from canvases to motorcycle parts to rocks. “I don’t know if there’s anything that’s not fascinating,” she says.
Hellums, who now lives in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, says that although she has Crohn’s disease and AS, she doesn’t consider the conditions to be part of her identity. “Everybody has limitations in life,” she says, explaining that, with time, she found a way to work through hers — and found more compassion for herself in the process.
“You have to be kind to yourself,” she says, “and to the people around you.”