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Migraine sufferer Jane Wunrow turns intense headaches into art

Jane Wunrow, 'Don't Be Afraid'

Jane Wunrow, 'Don't Be Afraid'

Artist Jane Wunrow has suffered from migraines since she was 13 years old. She knows when one is imminent by the appearance of visual disturbances called aura. She may be preparing to leave the house, coat on, telling her family goodbye, and then she’ll look up at the ceiling and see colored, flashing lights.

“Once that starts, I know that I’m shot. I can’t go. I’m done,” she says.

Aura is only the beginning of a migraine. At times parasthesia, a numbing sensation, overtakes half of her face, including her tongue. A bi-lateral headache follows, accompanied by confusion and dizziness. When the pain and disorientation subside, Wunrow often feels fatigued, and her comprehension and concentration decrease. One time she even experienced aphasia, an inability to comprehend and formulate language.

These migraines strike unpredictably, though she suspects they’re hormone-related. They used to last an entire day; now they’re closer to three hours, a duration change she describes as “lucky.”

Wunrow’s art offers a glimpse into this debilitating affliction. Using detailed line work, often black pen on white or white pen on black, she recreates the aura shapes. Powdered graphite, powdered charcoal, spray paint, and collage add additional texture and depth to the images.

These pieces will be on display at “Seeing Voices,” her first solo exhibition opening at Gamut Gallery this Saturday.

Jane Wunrow

Jane Wunrow

Though Wunrow has suffered migraines for almost two decades, the affliction wasn’t always the focus of her work. After graduating from the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul in 2007, she she soon discovered she was pregnant with her first daughter.

“That kind of shifted gears pretty quickly,” she says. “I love being a mom, but there was a lot of struggle at the time figuring out how to still be an artist and a parent. I didn’t know how that was done.”

She and her husband carved out time for her to escape to coffeeshops. Because of space restrictions, she stuck to 11 by 14-inch paper and used gouache, which is similar to a matte watercolor, a material that dries fast and allows her to draw on top of it. The conceptual work that emerged bubbled out of vivid dreams and the emotions they provoked.

These days, thanks to a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Wunrow has secured nine months in a studio in the Vandalia Tower in St. Paul. Her work is now going big, with pieces at 44 by 30 inches and 50 by 38 inches. 

Creating artwork around migraines has facilitated connections with fellow sufferers in the artistic field.

“I’ve tried not to look at it as a negative experience in my life, as it changes my perception of the world around me. Not everyone gets that ‘opportunity,’” she says. “I’m not going to say it’s great having migraines. It’s the same with my dreams. When I have something that’s scary in a dream, I don’t want to refer to it as a nightmare. There’s always a learning tool in the negative.”

With her artwork, Wunrow aims to evoke a sense of recognition in the viewer, even if they haven’t suffered from migraines or trauma themselves.

“I’m hoping that whatever I put down on paper it’s not, ‘Oh, this is something Jane struggled with.' [I hope to] tap into those moments that someone is carrying in themselves.”

IF YOU GO:

“Seeing Voices”
Gamut Gallery
There will be an opening reception from 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday, February 3.
Through March 3
Free; $5 opening party