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How painter Christopher Sorenson finds beauty in disease

At work at Pharmacie. Photo courtesy of the artist

At work at Pharmacie. Photo courtesy of the artist

The body is a messenger, and Minnesota artist Christopher Sorenson has painted its missives in a series of paintings called “Dis-Ease.” They will be featured in an exhibition on pathology and healing, tentatively titled “Itch,” opening on October 28 at City Wide Artists.

Populated with skulls, sunflowers, and splashes of hot-pink paint, Sorenson’s art is pretty, but the muses are grim: psoriasis, malaria, gonorrhea, syphilis, cancer, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis.

A bodyworker and masseuse by trade, the 33-year-old Sorenson first explored these diseases through his homeopathic training. Later, he researched Western medicine approaches to learn more about pathogens and how they destroy the body.

Homeopathy looks at one’s energetic susceptibility to disease; if there is a weakness in the system, it’s an open door for illness. It’s a massive paradigm shift from the Western medicine approach, which seeks to find the cause and effect of a disease, then medicates the symptoms.

For his painting series, Sorenson posted open calls via Facebook to encourage real-life sufferers of these diseases to speak to him about their experiences. Those conversations played into the color choices, and how vibrant or gripping he wanted each piece to be.

To further enrich his work, Sorenson examined how doctors dealt with patients suffering from these diseases in the past, especially when religious codes of society were at their strictest. “Those things became devastating on a level that we don’t necessarily have to deal with today,” he says of the ailments.

Sorenson brings beauty to paintings of life and death. Photo courtesy of the artist

Sorenson brings beauty to paintings of life and death. Photo courtesy of the artist

At the time homeopathy was founded by German doctor Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700s, syphilis was considered the deepest level of disease. “There was no way to cover it up,” Sorenson says. “That’s where the level of hopelessness and despair really comes in.”

If you contracted gonorrhea, it was a sign you were probably unfaithful; and while it likely wouldn’t be fatal, it could make you sterile. As for AIDS? “It’s a kind of modern-day leprosy,” Sorenson says. “There’s this feeling after you know you have it of being untouchable.”

Look over Sorenson’s past and it’s easy to see why health is at the forefront of his mind.

“I never went to the doctor as a kid,” he says. “I was always treated with chiropractic or acupuncture or herbal remedies.” So when he had a personal crisis in his 20s, he didn’t have faith that Western medicine or even psychology could help him. He went to a homeopath instead. The first appointment was three hours long. “I felt completely seen on all levels: body, mind, soul. It was really compelling,” Sorenson says.

The crisis was a long time coming. At age 17, while a student at White Bear Lake High School, he came out as gay. “My parents reacted really poorly to the situation,” he says. “I went into therapy and went through a process where I effectively chose to suppress a big part of myself.”

He married young, and his then-wife, Anna, gave birth to their daughter midway through his junior year in college. Two weeks later, Anna suffered a massive stroke. Sorenson found her, not breathing, in the bathroom. Doctors later explained that the left hemisphere of her brain — where language is located — was affected. Anna couldn’t speak, read, or write; she also lost coordination on the right side of her body. Sorenson says his parents were a “massive godsend” over the ensuing months, as he shuttled Anna to rehabilitation therapy and simultaneously took care of their newborn.

By the time classes started up again in the fall, the couple were back in college. “She made what they were calling one of the most miraculous turnarounds that they had ever seen,” Sorenson says of Anna. They would later welcome a son into their family.

On the surface, all appeared to be well, but internally, Sorenson was “teetering on the edge of going bananas.” One of the questions the homeopath raised was the amount of expression versus suppression in Sorenson’s life. “[I had] a really horrible realization that if I wanted to live fully, I would have to undo some things that I had done, and leave my marriage and not be a full-time father for my children,” he says.

Sorenson came out as gay again, though he and Anna continued to cohabit and co-parent for four more years in their St. Peter home. Sorenson also started painting during this time. “It wasn’t until the shit hit the fan that I was really compelled to set up a studio in my house and buy a whole bunch of paint and canvas,” he says.

Sorenson’s early work consisted of dreamy, graphic blooms inspired by flower remedies he learned while studying at the Northwestern Academy of Homeopathy in St. Louis Park. Many of those paintings have ended up in hospital settings.

He then moved on to multilayered flower paintings that incorporated the minerals he was studying; these pieces are somewhat darker, grittier. “I tried to take information about the composition of the molecules into account and, in hindsight, I realized that no one else would really understand,” he says.

In 2012, Sorenson moved to Minneapolis and established a relationship with a man. After three years, that relationship ended, prompting soul-searching on Sorenson’s part to find out what led to its demise. He noticed a common thread in his behavior, be it with his ex-wife, his ex-boyfriend, or with his parents. “It was pretty clear that I have a tendency to want to keep the peace and make sure everyone’s happy, and I really give myself away,” he says. “I’m not speaking up for myself. I’m not saying what I think or what I need.”

He again turned to art to process the pattern. Sketches turned into a series of canvas and leather cutout pieces featuring agape mouths adjacent to exclamation points. The “Chomp!” series was born. “I was tired of painting,” Sorenson says of the divergence from his previous work. “I wanted to do something pop-ish and graphic.”

When Sorenson attended a Valentine’s Day event earlier this year at local home goods store Pharmacie, he couldn’t help but notice the venue’s substantial window space. He approached the owners and offered to turn “Chomp!” into a display for Pride. The rainbow-colored mouth installation went up the day after the Orlando nightclub shooting in June.

And that brings us back to “Dis-Ease,” which will be featured alongside work from supporting artists Llane Alexis, who specializes in textiles and is developing a series of healing voodoo dolls, and Jesse Nagamatsu, an MCAD grad who does fine graphite paintings. Kill Kancer has signed up to be a co-host of the opening with a portion of the commission that City Wide Artists makes going toward fighting cancer.

Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo courtesy of the artist

“I think this show is going to have a profound impact on the community, in addition to showing some new, interesting, beautiful art,” says Teqen Zéa-Aida, curator at the gallery. “[Sorenson] takes those embodiments of, say, cancer or HIV, and shows graphically the pain, the anger, the suffering, the insecurity… and then he applies, through painting, the homeopathy, the natural remedies: energy, light, sound, plants. In the end, it is as if something that was ugly or terrifying has been made beautiful.”

As for Sorenson’s body-mind-soul balance, it’s a work in progress. Anna, who is remarrying this month, has since moved to Duluth with the children, so Sorenson alternates weeks parenting and painting up north with time spent doing bodywork and massage at the Firm in Minneapolis. “We are both in such better places than before,” he says. “We both effectively started over and have new things going for ourselves.”

Going forward, the artist has his eye on a new market: Chicago or New York, “places where loud, strong art is the norm,” he says. “What I have experienced is most people here, if they have money and they want to invest it in art, tend to lean conservatively, so they’re looking for classical work, landscapes, portraits. Massive paintings of skulls made out of flowers are not super high on the list.”

Still, Zéa-Aida, who has experienced Sorenson’s body work and considers it as intuitive as his art, is eagerly anticipating the exhibition: “I’m so excited about his work. I think it’s very timely.” He says he finds hope in the paintings, that they reassure us that “we can move past whatever ails us. We can move past whatever is hurting us.”

Sorenson echoes this sentiment. “I have a lot of respect for it,” he says of pain. “Pain brings us into our bodies and it brings us into living right here, right now. Not a lot else does it.”

When things are good, we let ourselves be distracted; we daydream about the future or indulge nostalgia of the past. When things go wrong, Western medicine looks to suppress the discomfort. Sorenson cautions against that approach, and advises leaning into it instead. “Get into the ugly and the muck,” he says. “You have to do it, and you’ll be so much more alive because of it.”

“Itch”
City Wide Artists
1506 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
October 28 through December 2