Rare diseases of skin

patternsBeing comfortable in your own skin is no easy feat, no matter who you are. Brooklyn-based artist Ariana Page Russell, however, grew up struggling with a skin condition that extended beyond wavering self-esteem. Russell has dermatographic urticaria, also known as "skin writing."

Simply defined, the condition inflames the skin as a result of the slightest contact, such as scratching, rubbing, or even hot water. The lightest of touches triggers cells to release histamines that causes physical symptoms similar to an allergic reaction. Any occurrence can take the form of puffy and red welts, leading mild scratches to resemble a serious affliction.

In her condition, Russell discovered not only an unlikely artistic subject but an artistic medium as well. Russell developed a singular artist method, drawing deliberate patterns, messages and images on her skin and photographing the inflamed result. The bold artist inscribes everything from constellations to sailboats right on her flesh, letting her skin tell its story on its own terms.

floraThe viscerally striking images offer up a self portrait unlike any other, in which the artist and art truly converge. Russell's portraits, displaying an inspirational combination of vulnerability and courage, could teach most of us a lesson or two about loving our bodies and ourselves, not in spite of our flaws but because of them. We reached out to Russell to hear her wisdom firsthand.

Were you interested in photography before you discovered working with your skin condition or did the two come together?

I've been interested in photography for many years, and took my first official photo class in 1996. My photographs have always been about the human body, so it makes sense that I started photographing my skin.

What exactly is your process? Is it ever painful?

It never hurts, and is not painful (the area does get a little itchy sometimes though). I always like to make that very clear so people know I'm not inflicting harm on myself. What happens is I use a knitting needle or some other blunt object to trace a pattern or write text on my skin. Then in about five minutes the welts form and I make photographs. The drawings last about 30 minutes, so I need to work quickly. Back when I started this project in 2003 I was using film, so it was a little harder to make the photographs. I'd use mirrors to help me get different angles. Now with digital photography, I use a remote and tripod, and can see right away if the photos look good.

Do you see any symbolic meaning in your skin condition?

Yes definitely! I've learned how to be comfortable with my skin and its quirks, sensitivities, and transparency. And not only that, but I've been inspired by it as well. I have dermatographia to thank for that!

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