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Toronto sculptor, 59, gets heavy-metal poisoning after spending 15 years with mussel shells

A Toronto artist who has been sculpting with natural materials since 1991 was shocked when she learned that mussel shells she had worked with for 15 years caused her to suffer heavy-metal poisoning. 

Gillian Genser, a 59-year-old sculptor based in Toronto, began using blue mussel shells in 2000 while working on the sculpture of Adam, the first man. She had made a statue of Lilith, just before, but using eggshells.

‘The shells came from Atlantic Canada, and I’d buy them in bulk in Chinatown, so that I could sort through the bins and choose shells in the shapes I wanted,’ she wrote in a personal essay for Toronto Life. 

Gillian Genser, a 59-year-old sculptor based in Toronto, began using blue mussel shells in 2000 while working on the sculpture of Adam, the first man

She said: 'I spent up to 12 hours a day grinding and sanding the shells to fit into the shape of Adam¿s body. They beautifully replicated the striations in his muscle fibres. I sifted through thousands of mussels and served them to friends and ­family two or three times a week'

She said: 'I spent up to 12 hours a day grinding and sanding the shells to fit into the shape of Adam¿s body. They beautifully replicated the striations in his muscle fibres. I sifted through thousands of mussels and served them to friends and ­family two or three times a week'

She said: ‘I spent up to 12 hours a day grinding and sanding the shells to fit into the shape of Adam’s body. They beautifully replicated the striations in his muscle fibres. I sifted through thousands of mussels and served them to friends and ­family two or three times a week’

‘I spent up to 12 hours a day grinding and sanding the shells to fit into the shape of Adam’s body. They beautifully replicated the striations in his muscle fibres. I sifted through thousands of mussels and served them to friends and ­family two or three times a week.’ 

Soon after she started working on the sculpture, however, Genser began getting sick. She suffered from constant headaches, persistent puking and was growing more and more agitated. 

She added: ‘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.’ 

Even the intricate pieces inside the sculpture are made from seashells and silver

She added: 'The shells came from Atlantic Canada, and I¿d buy them in bulk in Chinatown, so that I could sort through the bins and choose shells in the shapes I wanted'

Even the intricate pieces inside the sculpture are made from seashells and silver. She added: ‘The shells came from Atlantic Canada, and I’d buy them in bulk in Chinatown, so that I could sort through the bins and choose shells in the shapes I wanted’

Soon after she started working on the sculpture, however, Genser began getting sick

Soon after she started working on the sculpture, however, Genser began getting sick

But the symptoms only worsened for Genser, who would become immobile after spending a few hours with the shells. The artist also suffered muscle aches and was constantly worried about her hands cramping while she worked with tools. 

‘I became combative and fatalistic, declaring that my life was over,’ she continued. ‘My husband was afraid to the leave the house, worried he’d come home and find me hanging from the chandelier. He found friends to babysit me. These symptoms continued, on and off, for 15 years.’

It progressed so bad that she eventually lost hearing in her left ear and suffered short term memory loss

It progressed so bad that she eventually lost hearing in her left ear and suffered short term memory loss

In 2013, Genser was cleaning out her ventilation system when she discovered that she was unable to stand. 

She was bedridden for a week, unable to formulate sentences as her speech became slurred. Soon, the artist found herself in agonizing pain in her neck, abdomen and arms while she also suffered from hearing loss in her left ear and short-term memory loss. 

‘I developed spatial disorientation, confusing up with down, right with left, said Genser. ‘I couldn’t recognize people I had known most of my life. At the peak of my mental distress, I would walk up and down the street, muttering and shouting profanities to no one in particular. I saw a psychiatrist, but he had no idea why I was so erratic. We tried everything: antidepressants, antipsychotics, tranquilizers. Nothing helped. Painfully aware of my deteriorating mental health, I began to withdraw from the world.’

Genser admitted that her ability to create art suffered but she was determined to see the Adam sculpture through. 

The artist soon learned, however, that the shells used to make the sculpture had contributed to her plethora of ailments.  

‘One day, I visited the ROM, where I met a curator of invertebrates. He mentioned that bones and shells accumulate toxins in their environment. Upon further research, I discovered that common blue mussels are filter feeders,’ she added.  ‘They pump several litres of water per hour and concentrate chemicals in their tissues. In some countries, mussels are used to read toxicity levels in the water. Suddenly, everything clicked into place.’

Genser had made a statue of Lilith, just before, but using eggshells, before embarking on the work that would eventually make her sick

Genser had made a statue of Lilith, just before, but using eggshells, before embarking on the work that would eventually make her sick

Genser was diagnosed with heavy-metal poisoning in 2015 after doctors found high levels of both arsenic and lead in her blood

Genser was diagnosed with heavy-metal poisoning in 2015 after doctors found high levels of both arsenic and lead in her blood

Genser was diagnosed with heavy-metal poisoning in 2015 after doctors found high levels of both arsenic and lead in her blood. 

She would later learn that the water where the mussels grew likely came from contaminated waters filled with industrial waste. The mussels had been toxic, exposing Genser to the dangerous metals through consumption, air and her skin. 

Genser asserted: ‘When you make art, you often feel diminished and small—you’re just a vessel for the creative energy to pass through. My body was carrying a painful message about the poisoning that Earth is experiencing. 

She would later learn that the water where the mussels grew likely came from contaminated waters filled with industrial waste. The mussels had been toxic, exposing Genser to the dangerous metals through consumption, air and her skin

She would later learn that the water where the mussels grew likely came from contaminated waters filled with industrial waste. The mussels had been toxic, exposing Genser to the dangerous metals through consumption, air and her skin

‘Each of my sculptures has precious metal and stones embedded in them; all too often, treasure is defined by its scarcity. But the real treasures aren’t jewels and silver. They’re the creatures being eliminated, the beauty that’s disappearing.’

The artist revealed that she will never fully recover from the exposure. She has problems maintaining her thoughts and often struggles with eating thanks to her autoimmune disorders. 

She still does her art, however, and makes it a point to not let her ailments detract from her craft. Ammonoidea is made with steenbok skulls and bushbuck horns

She still does her art, however, and makes it a point to not let her ailments detract from her craft. Ammonoidea is made with steenbok skulls and bushbuck horns

Genser is also at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

Even with the ailments, however, Genser doesn’t plan on giving up her craft. 

She said: ‘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. 

‘When I look at Adam, I feel grief—both for myself and our planet. But I also feel satisfaction because he is magnificent. That’s how I find my hope. I call him my beautiful death.’ 

Adam was completed in 2015. 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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