For Lauryn Welch, a 32-year-old artist with roots in New Hampshire, painting and chronic illness were synchronized revelations. Learning her longtime partner, Samuel Geiger, had a connective tissue disorder called hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, led her to the canvas. She needed an outlet, a way of making sense of what her partner was feeling, and the brushes helped. Not long after, Welch learned she had an autoimmune condition that put her body in flux, too.
Those many intertwined parts of her life are on display in a new short film, “The Body Is a House of Familiar Rooms.” The film blends documentary video and illustration, plus an intimate voiceover narration that gives a glimpse into Welch and Geiger’s colorful life together. Welch co-created the film with Geiger and filmmaker Eloise Sherrid, and it has been screened at numerous local and regional film festivals.
STAT spoke with Welch from her studio at Hunter College in New York City, where she was in the final stages of earning her MFA in studio art. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you, Eloise, and Sam come up with the concept?
We’ve been friends for like over 10 years now, and Sam and I have been together for over 10 years. So this is the result of very long-term relationships. Eloise and I were at a residency together. We knew that we wanted to collaborate. I knew she was a filmmaker, and I am a painter.
During the residency, I kept being called away for medical emergencies, both for myself and for Sam. And it was happening so often or took so much of my time there that it was a little bit absurd. And she was filming it kind of for our amusement at first. From thinking about that, we were like, ‘OK, well, why don’t we work with Sam and do a film that is about this experience?’
How did you and Sam meet?
I think I was 19. We worked at the same bagel shop, and he was the person that made the bagels. I was at the front and I had to slice the bagels and there was a scary machine. And he would slice the bagels for me because I didn’t know how to do it — I would project them across the room. And then he asked me on a date like a year later. The first movie that we saw, we watched “Twin Peaks,” which is a horrible first date movie. We were both really quirky.
How did you discover painting?
I went to the Rhode Island School of Design for the first part of undergrad and was a painting major, so I guess I learned partially how to paint there. But I didn’t really start painting seriously on my own until shortly after Sam got sick. Painting is a kind of digestion. It’s a processing of experiences.
With chronic illness, it’s often a moving target day to day. One day, I feel better. The next day, something is not working right. And so there’s a lot of loss of control. Accepting that is really hard or rolling with that is really hard. And it’s also isolating, too. So painting has been a way to reclaim that experience and also call it something not good or not bad, but just my own experience.
Your film was so visually interesting because the painted elements blur the lines between what’s real and what’s not. How did you conceive of the visual style?
Sam and I live a very stay-at-home kind of life. It’s very rich, full of all these objects and color and plants and art and tchotchkes. And it’s this feeling of bringing the whole world into a room or into a few rooms. And this is something that’s close and tender and wonderful for us, but is also borne out of a kind of necessity.
I was already painting about this experience in my day to day life, because there are certain ways of painting something or of showing something that feel more true than what they look like in real life — the way colors clash together or the way space is identified.
You say in the film that, at first, you were hesitant to believe that Sam had hypermobile EDS. Why was that?
I had gone through a period of my life prior to that where I was really anxious. I was having a hard time in school and stuff, and it was manifesting as a lot of bad symptoms. And so that was my experience and understanding of being unwell. And I saw that he was having difficulty, he was feeling a lot of fatigue and things like that. But I was projecting my own experience onto his. And honestly, at that point I hadn’t considered it could have been something really extensive like that, especially because when we first met, he wasn’t ill. And so it was my lack of education and also my lack of paying attention.
I tried to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could. But definitely we’ve had a lot of conversations where he’s had to teach me, which is unfair for him, but that communication gap exists and we’ve just done what we could to close it over time.
You also have your own, unspecified autoimmune condition that causes inflammatory arthritis and other health issues. What had it been like for you to figure that out?
I’ve had minor stuff that I’ve kind of written off, as I think a lot of people do. And up until I started going to therapy, I’d always considered it more as a binary — he was visibly ill, he was visibly disabled, and I was not. I was able-bodied and had a job. I also used that to not think about what was going on with my own body.
I’ve been working through this in my art, too, realizing that there is a spectrum of how people deal with illness and disability. And we all deal with it at some point to some extent. I had to realize that this is more of an exchange, where Sam is also caring for me a lot of the time, especially if I let him. He tells me all the time that just because he has pain, that doesn’t mean that I don’t.
The film is called “The Body Is a House of Familiar Rooms.” What is the story behind that name?
A lot of our relationship has to deal with space, both physical and mental space and how they overlay on each other.
There are a whole bunch of books that we really love that are related to this. It’s very much about how the house is a living entity and how the house is kind of a larger body for the people that live in it. It’s like an exoskeleton. And that’s the crux of the film, too. Your body is a house, and you have to treat it as such and take care of it as such because it’s the only house for your spirit you get.
But the house is the body that you rely on when you have an unstable body because it’s an allegiance of so many objects and spaces. And if one area fails, you have the rest that can compensate. And that ecosystem is very important.
Is there anything else that you have learned about being a partner for and with someone who has a newly diagnosed condition while you’re also figuring out your health?
I took this class on [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein when I was in undergrad, and he has this whole section that’s about the inability to communicate pain and the inability to communicate color. You can’t verbalize what pain is. A pain scale or what you feel in your body can be completely different than what someone else feels. And so that building of language, you have to start from the ground up, and it’s different for every single person.
Building that language is the most caring and rewarding thing that we can do for each other. It’s one of the things that I treasure most about being in this relationship with Sam is the ways, verbally or physically or emotionally, that we can hold space for each other within this language.
The film ends with you asking Sam, “Did you have to take a pill today?” And Sam says no. And you say, “That’s good.” Why did you decide to end on that note?
It was one of those little snippets of conversation that wasn’t in the voiceover. It was an aside. But it seemed to encapsulate the little snippets of care. That exchange, in and of itself, is both really caring and also really fraught. In some ways it says the whole film without having to say much at all.
Want to share your story of living with a chronic illness? Email [email protected].
STAT’s coverage of chronic health issues is supported by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Our financial supporters are not involved in any decisions about our journalism.
Create a display name to comment
This name will appear with your comment