Receiving a multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis can require an array of tests and exams, followed by years of waiting. One artist living with MS has created a compelling way of consecrating the diagnosis journey with an art series called “Colors of MS.” Lindsey Holcomb developed the program in 2019 after painting her own magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, and she decided to offer the same for others living with the condition.
Although no single test can diagnose MS, neurologists often use MRI as a diagnostic tool when they suspect that someone is living with MS. When Holcomb first saw her own MRI after being diagnosed with MS in 2017, she was surprised by the depth of the imagery. “It felt very jarring and clinical — and very frightening,” she told MyMSTeam. “No one wants to see things in their brain. So I took that image and I painted it. I felt so much better. I felt like it had suddenly become very personal to me.”
Seeing the MRI in soothing colors made Holcomb realize that the scan could actually be quite beautiful. After posting the painting on social media, she was surprised to discover that the National Multiple Sclerosis Society had shared it as well.
“The comments started rolling in, and I was quite frankly shocked,” said Holcomb, who lives in the Portland, Oregon area. “It made me realize that there was a need for people to see their diagnosis through a different mode. Art is a lens that I think most people can get behind, regardless of the message. And so I really just initiated the strangest icebreaker on Earth, which was, ‘Hello, stranger on the internet. May I paint your medical imagery for you?’”
To Holcomb’s surprise, most of the people she asked accepted her offer, and her initiative grew from there. Since 2019, she has painted the MRIs of 196 people with MS. Of those, 86 people have publicly shared theirs within the “Colors of MS” project, while the remaining 110 prefer to keep theirs private.
“There are three parts to the project that have been hugely important to me,” Holcomb said. “The first, which resonates with a lot of people, is that every MRI is different, emphasizing that MS doesn’t look just one way. The second is that moment of helping someone face their MRI image. About 90 percent of the people I work with have never looked at it directly. And this is the first time they're actually personally requesting it and are prepared to look at it, and it is an emotional moment for a lot of people.”
The third part of the project is Holcomb’s favorite. Before she reveals the artwork for the first time, she asks the subject if they’d like to be surprised by seeing it on social media, or if they’d rather review it ahead of time. Most people opt for the surprise.
“What it’s created is this really special moment that I cherish — a day that you are excited to see your MRI, which for people living with MS and other chronic illness, is not common," Holcomb said. "It is not a very exciting day to go get your imagery done or wait for results. But this makes it almost like waiting for Christmas morning.”
That feeling of excitement helps Holcomb get out of bed on days when she finds that her MS symptoms are challenging. And if she’s having a tough week and can’t deliver a painting on time, her subjects absolutely understand. “It’s really the most ideal client-painter relationship because they understand if I’m dealing with tremors or optic neuritis, or any other symptoms,” she said.