Queer Transformations through Botany and Illness by Sarah Mihara Creagen

My Bachan, Matusuko Mihara (Creagen), moved to Canada from Japan in her thirties after my dad was born. She learned English from my white army grandpa, her sons, and American soap operas. She became fluent in English and didn’t teach her sons how to speak Japanese. She gave them both white sounding names.

Sarah Mihara Creagen, Bachan’s book, English Through Pictures

After my Bachan passed away, I kept her old English Through Pictures pocketbook edition from the 1950s that she probably got around the time she moved to Canada. In 2020, I flipped through it again and became obsessed with the page that reads, “Pleasure? What is that? Pain? What is that?” with the text placed alongside an ink line drawing of a candle flame. This photo has been taped to my studio walls the last few years and I think about these questions all the time. It inspired the title of my recent solo show “Pain”? What is that? “Pleasure”? What is that? at The Khyber Centre for the Arts in Halifax. I don’t know what role this pocketbook played for my Bachan as she didn’t read or write in English, but I look at this page often, thinking about translations. How do we translate experiences like pain and pleasure? What form do these translations take? Who are they for? What does healthy look like? And what does sick look like?

For me, these translations of experience are to share with other crips, queers, and mixies, and for folks to find pieces of themselves in and filter our shared experiences through. I view my work as invitations to these communities and hope for folks to follow the entrails back.

Coming to terms with a relatively recent diagnosis of Crohn’s disease has felt like a huge lesson in grief, loss, humour, and how to treasure all the new (and rediscovered) friendships and relationships that have grown to make space for my new ways of moving between these different bodies (healthy + healthy-ish + other), and between narratives, experiences, and states that have at times felt impossible to describe and share.

Sarah Mihara Creagen with contributions from Caitlin Creagen, The Medicine Cabinet, 2022, medicine cabinet, plants, prescription pill bottles

Dormancy: a survival method that allows time for seed dispersal and promotes germination during optimal environmental conditions. Some seeds can remain dormant for very long periods of time.

It’s been a weird experience, navigating becoming chronically ill, disabled, and immunocompromised throughout the pandemic. It seems for a lot of folks the pandemic has ended, or shifted, but this hasn’t been the case for me and a lot of our disabled community. Friendships have remained long distance even if we live in the same city, and my life has stayed pretty insular. I currently live with my partner, Lianne, who honestly has been so amazing in making our sequestered lives feel like a joyful party of cooking experiments and spying on neighbourhood dogs in the local park. (Shout out to Leo the pooch, who never comes to us no matter how much we whisper-shout his name.)

Like many disabled and chronically ill folks, I feel far away from ideas and memories of community right now, and it’s terrible. We’ve all been trying to find new ways to connect. I first started propagating plants in my mom’s kitchen in used pill bottles while I was really sick, and I share them with friends and family as a way to stay in each other’s lives. I would watch them grow roots and think about the home the plant would eventually end up in.

Sarah Mihara Creagen, bb birding, 2021, graphite, colour pencil, sumi ink, watercolour on watercolour paper

Emergence: the emergence of the seedling is a vulnerable stage for all plants. Many plants simply produce as many seeds as possible in the hope that a few at least will establish successfully.

I’m interested in the limbo that emerges while shifting from one state to another, the space you end up in while moving between inhabiting multiples at once: multiple identities, multiple races, multiple diagnoses. I feel as if I live in that in-between zone, wedged in the crack. Fact or fiction? White or Japanese? Sick or recovered? Bandage or scroll?

In the drawing bb birding that was included in the Khyber exhibition, I drew two figures on a large piece of watercolour paper, divided like a comic panel or a stalled film reel. I wanted to capture the disjointed experience of being caught in-between something, of a person who had fallen out of time. I started this piece right before the pandemic hit and before I got sick, while I was living with my mom in small town Ontario. I worked on it off and on for over a year, and when I look at it now, I see many different experiences and versions of myself placed on this single drawing of a woman puking a rainbow into a baby bird’s mouth.

Sarah Mihara Creagen, IV Garden, 2022 (detail), graphite, colour pencil, sumi ink, watercolour on watercolour paper

Cuttings/scarification: weakening, opening, or otherwise altering the coat of a seed to encourage germination.

My body has changed every few months since I got Sick. Sometimes through surgery, sometimes through starting new meds, and sometimes through new autoimmune diagnoses. Last spring a mysterious touch-induced inflammation appeared overnight, the swelling rushing throughout my whole body. One night a few months into it, Lianne kissed me goodnight and my whole lower face and neck swelled up for about twelve hours. It was wild! We went on a Leo the pooch hunt the next day while waiting for the swelling to go down. It always did. When one diagnosis eased up after about six months, a new one settled in. It’s been another six months since the last big change when my hair started to fall out and I can’t help but wonder what the next shift will be. Will this body keep changing every few months?

I try to not think about my body as Other, but it’s become unknown to me and rather like science fiction.

Every seven weeks I get hooked up to these IV bags for my meds. I call it my “booster juice” and watch the meds drain into me through tubes that feel more like roots and veins. They facilitate brief bursts of health and energy before it’s time to get hooked up to them again. I’ve started to look forward to it, like, “YES it’s infusion next week! Let me line up as many friend phone calls as I can when I know I’ll be feeling good!” before I dip back into the quiet again. The cycles are exhausting and I’m still trying to figure them out.

I’ve started to hate the word “resilient.” I’m tired now. When can I stop being resilient?! But I still think about the roadmap that seeds and plants follow of breaking down or pausing before the rebuild and bloom state, and the relationship between a translation and a transformation. I’ve got a growing collection of IV bags and tubes that I keep with me in the studio right now, imagining what else they will become.

Sarah Mihara Creagen, Studio, 2021

Sarah Mihara Creagen is a white passing mixed-race Japanese Canadian Queer artist born in Nova Scotia and currently living in Toronto. She makes large-scale drawings and installation work that describe her relationship to chronic illness, Crohn’s disease, and disability. Her current research into plants and hands-on gardening practices has led to histories of sex, illness, and healing practices found within the field of botany. Currently, Sarah is collaborating with Zoe Hayes and the city of Hamilton to create a public bioremediation garden, starting in late 2022 and operating through 2023.