Gillian Genser, a sculpture artist from Toronto, Canada, started working on her sculpture of Adam, the first man, in 1998. She was inspired by nature, and all of her artwork reflected this in some way or the other. Before starting working on the sculpture of Adam, she had made a statue of Lilith, the first woman, using only eggshells. Bones, shells, and dried plants were among the natural materials she liked to use in her work.
For the sculpture of Adam, she would buy blue mussels in bulk from Toronto’s Chinatown and spend hours grinding and sanding the shells. It took her 15 years to complete the sculpture. When she was done, she was diagnosed with heavy-metal poisoning.
The surprising fact about it was that it was one of the materials used in her sculpture that had caused the poisoning. Mussel shells, she thought, would beautifully replicate the muscle fibers of the sculpture, but little did she know that constant exposure to mussel shells would cause neurological and permanent damage to her health.
Mussel shells act as filter feeders in our environments as they accumulate toxins from their surroundings.
Mussels feed on microscopic sea creatures and plankton. As they explore their surroundings in search of food, they also accumulate toxins in their bodies. Because of this, they are often used to determine the level of toxicity of the water. Uncontaminated mussels are sourced from an aqua-farm and placed in the water. After two to three months, they are collected and examined for the level of contamination.
In Gillian’s case, the blue mussels she bought in Toronto’s Chinatown came from the Atlantic Ocean just off Canada’s coast. According to Health Canada, “High concentrations of marine bio-toxins in shellfish can cause illness in people who eat them.” Also, Canada does have an effective program to monitor and ensure the safety of the shellfish sold in their territory. But these safety measures are meant to protect consumers from food-based poisoning and not from inhaling grounded-up shells.
After a diagnosis, it was found that Gillian Genser had high levels of lead, arsenic, and methyl mercury in her body. All of these had accumulated over a period of 15 years due to prolonged exposure to Mussel shells.
Her symptoms started off with headaches and feelings of nausea. Despite several visits to doctors and specialists, there were no concrete answers to her deteriorating health. When asked whether she was handling any toxins, she would always mention that she had been only using natural materials. Gillian Genser was oblivious to the fact that the “natural material” she was using in her sculpture had been the main cause of her poor health.
Her condition went from bad to worse. She started experiencing brain fog, muscle aches, memory loss, and bouts of helplessness and anxiety. Due to a loss of appetite, she dropped to 76 pounds. In one of her articles, she mentions that she lost the hearing ability in her left ear, and her condition was so poor that she couldn’t recognize people she had known most of her life. It was a visit to the Royal Ontario Museum that solved the puzzle for her. She met a curator of invertebrates who told her that shells and bones can accumulate toxins present in their environment. Upon further research and medical tests conducted by the doctors at the Environmental Health Clinic at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, she was finally diagnosed with heavy-metal poisoning in 2015.
Heavy-metal poisoning can be caused by the accumulation of heavy metals in the soft tissues of our bodies. It can lead to several body ailments and can be fatal.
Prolonged exposure to toxins can cause them to be ingested and accumulate in our bodies. Gillian Genser spent 12 hours a day grinding and filing the shells for her sculpture. The dust from the shells would coat her arms and clothes. Even while cleaning the venting system, she would breathe the mussel dust in, unknowingly poisoning her own body. The symptoms can vary depending upon the amount and the metal. Metals like the lead, arsenic, and mercury found in her body can cause muscle pain, depression, headaches, lethargy, anorexia due to loss of appetite, and can severely harm vital organs of our bodies. Apart from industrial exposure and pollution, heavy metal poisoning can also be caused by the use of multiple, everyday products and by consumption of contaminated seafood.
Declining health had left Gillian bedridden. Struggling to cope with her deteriorating mental and physical self, she thought she was going to die, and one of her last wishes was to complete the sculpture of Adam. Despite being in poor health, Gillian finished her sculpture and named it “My Beautiful Death.”
Gillian Genser has not fully recovered from the heavy-metal poisoning and probably never will. Chronic exposure to toxins has permanently affected her overall health. She also has a high risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
In one of the interviews, she stated, “I keep thinking about him because when I made him, he was made to be a re-expression of what should have been the human-first perception of the ecosystem of the world. It originally began with that terrible statement that man has dominion over all the animals, and I wanted to re-state that and say that approach took us to a very bad place. It is very ironic that, of course, this piece, that was representing that first Adam, was so toxic and that he poisoned me.”
Lead poisoning, also known as “Saturnism,” has been observed in artists over the centuries. Lead found in the paint is considered to be the main source of contamination.
It was highlighted by an Italian physician in the year 1713 after he noticed that many of the artists he knew suffered from similar symptoms which could have been due to the pigment they were using to paint. Due to direct exposure to paint, lead accumulated in their bodies.
Lead poisoning affects the brain the most, causing severe headaches, anxiety, seizures, memory loss, etc. Other visible symptoms include constipation, abdominal pain, and inability to have children. In extreme cases, it can cause anemia and even can cost you your life. Some of the great artists like Michelangelo, Goya, and Vincent Van Gogh, all suffered from something similar that was then called “painter’s colic” or “painter’s madness.”