Priya Rama’s work and story really resonated with me. I get migraines and have my whole life. When I was a little girl, I was often torn, because I knew that certain activities would give me headaches. Mine are genetic, my maternal grandmother used to shut herself in her bedroom for days on end. Like Priya, my migraines have changed a lot over the years. Until I was in my 20’s, I didn’t know what I was experiencing were actually migraines. Or that there is medication to help! Now for Priya Rama:
I have had migraines since I was a little girl. They continue to change as I get older. Every migraine is different from the other. I often experience this unbelievable tiredness and I don't know why I'm feeling that tired. I just want to sit and not do anything. That is usually a day before a migraine. I'm not always good at recognizing, "Oh, I'm about to get a migraine." The days I don't have migraines, I overcompensate and I do so much, because my migraines are so frequent. I get two to three a week.
Two to three migraines a week! Wow. Are you on any medication?
Oh yeah. All kinds of meds. We moved to Cincinnati from Texas about 10 years ago. After moving to Cincinnati my migraines worsened. That's when I realized that weather is a big trigger for me which I'd never paid attention to before. The changing weather in Cincinnati, the constant barometric pressure changes, all lead to migraines.
Yeah. This year, this spring has been terrible for me. I get migraines once a month maybe. But early this summer I was getting three a week.
I didn't connect the dots to weather until we moved here. It doesn't always end up in a migraine, it can quite often be just a very tight head. Like it's being squeezed. It’s constant pressure and tightness. Just an overall discomfort, really.
I hear you, I understand.
When I was commuting to Ohio State two, three times a week, I was a full time student and I was teaching. The [combination of the] commute and being a wife and mother, it was all just too much. I was always medicating. I had too many migraines. I always had a list of things to do. I had assignments to grade or assignments to complete. It was just too much really. So I decided to take a year's break and reevaluate and see, “Do I really want to do this?” Continue with this.
Because along with migraines comes this constant guilt, right? Guilt of canceling appointments, or guilt of not being able to do your job. Or not being around for people. I said, “This is not worth it.” So I decided to take a year's break and during that break one particular migraine was really vivid and vibrant, and I decided to paint it. That's where this whole thing started. Painting that felt so very comfortable and so natural.
Painting these has not necessarily cured the migraines, but what it's done has been to allow me to let go of all the anger and frustration that I was holding onto. I didn't even realize how angry I was! There's a constant canceling of plans or you wake up and you feel this pain, and you're like, again, really?! You're just dealing with this constant anger. So painting has allowed me to be completely at peace with having migraines and accept their presence in my life.
Now a migraine comes, I'm like okay, and I just deal with it. Not that having the pain is enjoyable or anything. Some days it really brings you down. But it is what it is. I don't know any other life, that's just all I've known.
I've been doing this now for three, three and a half years. The more I paint the more vibrant the images are becoming.
Yes. That's interesting. Something like training a muscle. You only started painting your migraine visions about three years ago?
I've always painted though... I trained to be a graphic designer and typographer. So I was doing that, working in advertising.
When I was in Texas, I was an elementary school teacher. I taught fourth grade. Art and design took a back seat. When we moved here I thought it was a great opportunity to combine teaching and this love for art and design. So I thought I'd do art education. I did my masters here at the University of Cincinnati, and then started my doctoral work at OSU. So that's how that journey kind of happened.
So you've always been artistic, always painted.
I've always painted. But much more traditional subjects. I really didn't think too much about this imagery I was seeing because I've always known it. I didn't think it was something very unusual or that not everybody sees that kind of imagery. I'm a visual learner. I understand the world in visual terms. I thought that's how everybody is.
So when I started doing this and people were responding to my work...I actually met people who say some of my paintings are exactly like some of the visions they see. That fascinates me. Different bodies, different brains, somewhat similar condition and we see similar things, you know?
Yes! Some of your paintings I can look at and think, “Wow, that's a lot of pain.” In others, I can see maybe that's one where you're doing okay with it that day. Where you found a calm place or just, ‘Okay, this is happening.’ I can definitely see in [the paintings] the type of migraine, which is crazy to me.
For me, that is interesting. A lot of people say, "Oh, that looks like a painful one." I haven't really thought of the images as painful or not. It's just an image for me. Yes the image comes out of this process [or pain] but to me it's amazing that I see this imagery. [The image is] not in my eyes, it's more inside my brain. My vision will get sort of blurry and diffused [with a migraine] but all this imagery is inside my head. It's more like the top of my head. So I close my eyes, kind of look up and then it starts to emerge. Then I can travel through it, sort of float through it, and frame what I'm looking at. It's really interesting. It's almost like a slow motion movie.
This has been fantastic. It's taken me a long time to arrive at this point to find that one thing that truly grabs me. All along I thought I'd been doing things I love and enjoy but this feels completely like home.
As I'm floating through it some things can come forward, some things recede. So for me I don't look at the pain, it's just I'm focusing so much on what's going on inside my head. The textures and the details of the colors. I'm just trying to capture it.
When you're painting what you're seeing, do you finish a whole painting?
No...I work, as you can see [gestures to many half painted canvases leaning against the wall], I work on multiple things at once. So I'll travel through back and forth. So these are all in progress.
Is it a combination of visions, or are you able to go back?
I'm able to go back because I have a photographic memory of all my visions.
That's really wild!
Going back years. Otherwise my memory is pretty bad. When it comes to these visions I can recall. It's almost like I can go back to that vision, almost that moment. Not necessarily the migraine experience, but just the whole visual symphony that's playing out. It's like a file folder system in my head. I can pull out a drawer and there are slides and I can look at these images and go back to that moment.
I work on different [pieces] because things have to dry. Once I start painting, it's weird. As calming and meditative as it is, it's also a big urgency to capture what I'm seeing. To get it on canvas quickly and to capture the feeling. So I have to work on multiple things and allow things to dry between layers so I can go and add to it.
For me, painting is a quiet process. It's me and my thoughts and ... you know? Just being part of that moment of experiencing it.
You don't realize you're not talking to anybody, you're sort of lost in your thoughts.
This is what the beginning stages of my process look like: I'll start with a blank [canvas], I put a background color on and then I do layers. Quite often I use black for the background because it gives the depth, the shadow that I'm looking for. Once I do that then I layer [sheer washes of color that build the feeling of depth]. Then I start building all the details.
So every little dot and every little thing that you see there has been placed there by me. It's just an ongoing process and I can spend hours and hours just building, building.
Because my studio is at home I'm able to work at any hour that I want. And just be comfortable. And I can get in and out of bed and work.
Does that happen a lot?
Is that because the migraines are there and you can't sleep?
Yeah. Because I'll come and I'll start to paint but then sometimes it's so painful that I don't want to be here. So at least get the process started and then go back to bed. Then the image continues and I'm just sort of compelled to come back and paint again, to try to capture it. Having the studio at home really allows me the flexibility.
You sell your work mainly at art fairs?
Yes, and I'm in a few galleries. Hayley Gallery in Columbus, Ohio… and I'm in Purple Paisley in Covington, Kentucky.
What was that process like, getting into galleries?
Basically you approach them, show your work, talk about what you do. I include images of my work in emails or I take my work to show them. I've only applied to art fairs and galleries which have a jury process. It's more choosy in who they have in the gallery [or fair]. I want to be amongst good company.
[When I approach galleries with my paintings,] I look at the work they carry already. The artists they have. Because I'm not a traditionalist, you can see, and I don't even do traditional subjects. I have to find galleries that show modern, contemporary and abstract art really.
Hayley Gallery, the owner saw me in the Greater Columbus Art Festival last year and thought I would be a good fit. She said, "Hey come on over with your work and we'll see." I've been there a year, and she’s very supportive.
Okay. So it’s been a combination. Some people have approached you and you've approached some people.
Yeah. This year my hope is to go to two other galleries outside the tristate area. Maybe Chicago. I'm trying to find the balance between having enough inventory to do art fairs and to have work at home. When you take work to a gallery it stays with them. It's no longer available for you.