“I spent 15 years sanding and grinding mussel shells to create my sculptures. Then I was diagnosed with heavy-metal poisoning.”1 When it comes to a career, common advice is that if you find something you love, you will never feel like you are working. Imagine if you found your passion only to discover, years later, that it was killing you. That is exactly what happened to Gillian Genser, a Toronto artist who was inspired to use blue mussel shells to create incredible sculptures, often spending 12 hours a day in her studio. 1 Photo credit: Toronto Life
Branching out from her earlier work with other found objects such as bone, eggshell, and coral, Gillian began exploring what could be done with blue mussel shells from Atlantic Canada. The shells were sold in bins in Toronto’s Chinatown where Gillian would sift through them to find suitable material. She also embraced fresh mussels and steamed them several times each week for meals with family and friends.1
Slowly Gillian experienced a mysterious illness, “I was agitated all of the time. I had constant headaches, and I vomited often, sometimes a few times a day. I visited a never-ending assortment of specialists—neurologists, rheumatologists, endocrinologists—hoping to figure out what was wrong with me. When they asked me if I worked with anything toxic, I said no, that I only used natural materials.”1 Gillian’s mental well-being diminished so much that her husband was afraid to leave her alone.
What Gillian did not realize was that she was suffering the same fate as marine animals threatened by environmental pollutants. Mussels themselves are such voracious filter feeders, so effective at capturing and retaining both organic and non-organic particles, that they are being deployed by conservationists and wildlife biologists to clean-up polluted waterways.2 Shellfish build their shells with ingredients they extract from their environment.3 The shells are left with a geochemical record of their environment. For blue mussels, this environmental chronicle lists heavy metals such as mercury and lead.4
Once doctors finally diagnosed her illness, Gillian looks back and observes:
“Sadly, my artistic practice caused me, through personal injury, to experience the terrible impact of human destruction of the natural world. Through fine grinding and material preparations, I became unexpectedly exposed to some of the very pollutants (methylmercury, arsenic, and lead) that damage our environment. The impact on my already poor medical condition was severe. I suffered neurological damage, substantial hearing loss and severe and permanently debilitating mental health consequences before my medical practitioners were able to identify the poisoning.”5
While Gillian’s story is cautionary about unwitting exposure to environmental toxins, there are deeper lessons for us all. Gillian writes that her art provides, “a very intimate interaction for the viewer and suggest[s] that as we look inward, we may discover our internal interconnectedness to the world around us.”5
There is some hopefulness to come out of Gillian’s personal tragedy. In her own words:
“I’m now 59 years old, and my quality of life is poor. But while I continue to work, even though it’s more difficult every day, I feel a terrible sadness. When we talk about environmental damage, we speak of declines in populations. Numbers and species. But I’ve experienced the suffering of so many creatures trapped in their polluted habitats. I now hope their voices can be heard—that my art might create a sense of awe, a sense of connectivity and reverence for the natural world.”1
Gillian’s artwork is indeed a powerful reminder of the beauty and danger that coexist in the realm where human activity touches the natural world.
We hope you enjoyed our article, but please consider reading the original article published in Toronto Life. While we’ve done a respectable job of writing this article, her own words are truly eloquent and bittersweet and well worth a few minutes out of your day.
1Genser G. My Beautiful Death. 28 November 2018. Toronto Life.
2Stutz B. Natural Filters:. 1 April 2015. Resilience.
3Australian Academy of Sciences. She Sells Sea Shells: The Secret Life of One of the Ocean’s Wonders. 2018.
4Brown ME, et al. Freshwater mussel shells as environmental chronicles: geochemical and taphonomic signatures of mercury-related extirpations in the North Fork Holston River, Virginia. Environmental Science & Technology. 2005 Mar 15;39(6):1455-62.
5Genser G. Gillian Genser Artist Page.
Gillian Genser Facebook page
Amancia E. Toole
My name is Amancia E. Toole–my friends call me ET. I own this website and its accompanying Facebook page where I encourage you to share your thoughts on my articles. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology followed by a program in Medical Technology. I’ve taken courses in Environmental Studies at Johns Hopkins University and have always had a life-long interest in the environment. I recently shifted the focus of this website in order to “expand the conversation,” because I believe our planet is in crisis and so are we as a people. I now use my background in biology and in a microbiology laboratory to write and share solid science-based information about emerging research in climate disruption, the wholesale pollution of our environment and how our toxic world might be affecting our mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. I also write about many of the promising advances in the area of human health and longevity.
I hope to slow the spread of misinformation on dubious sites making wild conspiracy story claims that add to the very real risks of mounting, global antibiotic resistance, and the possibility of emerging epidemics and pandemics due to propaganda that encourages misunderstandings surrounding vaccines, environmental toxins, and chemicals that are food.
It’s also my hope is to inspire anyone who visits my website and Facebook pages to learn and to take control of your destiny by making small changes to your lifestyle so that it’s a more sustainable and happy life: start by learning to grow a small garden or walk and bike a little more for your local errands. Or maybe, stop using plastic altogether and shop locally to help support small farmers. There’s also a lot of intriguing new research that supports the idea that a plant-based diet might help you, as well as our planet, live a longer, healthier life so give that a try to see if that works for you. Most importantly, I believe we all have the power to save our planet, to live longer and healthier lives and to be more kind to one another.