The Host

Acrylics, Oils and textures on canvas.

100cm x 100cm.

Prints available in a range of sizes and art stocks from £30.

The story of how this painting came to be is a weird one indeed! So strange, that the story of its creation, after being picked up by media all over the world, went viral. The full account is given below, including a podcast interview with Sarah Gregory for Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It was painted from a personal experience and encounter with the parasite known as Loa loa filariasis, a destructive nematode that lives en mass in the body as both a microscopic larvae in the blood, and as adult worms up to 8cm long…

At some point after finishing the painting and posting the story around it, I was approached by The Journal for Emerging Infectious Diseases, who were focusing that month on parasitic and Tropical infections. Look, let’s be honest, it’s a pretty dry publication (unless you’re an infectious disease geek), so they lighten it up by featuring a relevant artwork, and an essay about that artwork. Nice idea! A couple of weeks later, I was called up by The Washington Post to ask if they could interview me and run the story, followed swiftly after by several other global outlets. It was quite hilarious!

It’s quite a niche subject matter, but after being invited to speak to a bunch of student doctors at the London School of Tropical Medicine, I did get a load of print sales from them! Nearly sold the original to the consultant who treated me as well, but an imminent posting to Kenya put him off in the end…. so this painting still winks at me every morning as I sit down to evacuate.

A detail showing intricate worm-like patterns disappearing in a spiral swirl towards the centre of the eye. The spiral pattern represents my own descent into sickness and desperation as no diagnosis was forthcoming for my illness. The texture on the edges of the painting was achieved by stretching a lace-like material over the frame and attaching it with wet medium.

The strange tale of my journey with Loa Loa, the African eye worm.

I thought this painting was finished in 2014 (see below). It ended up as an abstract piece that took ages to complete due to the intricate, worm-like patterns that filled the canvas. I was not able to appreciate or bond with the piece at that time, it was a struggle to complete and I was not satisfied with the end result at all. I had no idea what compelled me to paint it, or what it was trying to say, and it was shelved in my studio, where it rested in this unsatisfactory state for many months. Little did I realise that all would be revealed soon enough, and that this painting was being influenced by other beings.

I have spent a lifetime living and travelling in far flung lands, where strange bugs and critters creep and crawl freely. For many, many years I have been living with some strange health problems that did not respond to alternative or allopathic medical treatment. Although on most levels I have been fit and healthy most of my adult life, things started changing about two years ago: rocketing white blood cell counts; hospitalisations with abscesses; strange lumps that would appear and then disappear; itchy, raised red skin patches; joint aches, pains, and a sense that amongst the millions of microscopic beings that form “me”, that there was something gatecrashing the party. As one of my teachers pointed out to me, we, as humans, are an ecology of beings, with only ten percent of our body’s cells carrying our individual DNA.

In the summer of 2013, I went to stay in a traditional Bwiti village in the jungles of Gabon, where I underwent an intensive ten day healing ceremony conducted by a group of Babongo Pygmees led by their illustrious leader and king, Adumangana. Intense is not a word I use lightly, and intense it certainly was. Prior to going on this trip I had received warnings from two people possessed with the gift of insight that this journey would risk my life. The intensity of the ceremony, the jungle, the tropical sun and the ceaseless attacks by squadrons of flying insects, day and night, was unending, and left me wondering if I was really doing the right thing. At the end of this trip I was assured that all was well, the healing had worked and that I would regain health.

On my return to England, doubt crept in as my my health deteriorated and many strange new symptoms presented themselves over the following year and a half. One of these symptoms was a blinding pain in my eye combined with photosensitivity, that would occur every few months for a day or so and then slowly fade away. One day this pain re-occurred, but this time did not fully go away, and when I investigated it further by looking in the mirror, I saw a yellow/white lump protruding from the corner of the eye. I turned on my computer and whilst consulting Dr Google on this matter, my eye went into spasms and the pain returned in full force. Re-looking into the mirror, I could see something wriggling just under the surface of my eyeball. “OK, time for the hospital” I reasoned. The triage nurse looked at me as if I was a hallucinating miscreant (who, me?!) when I arrived, in shock, a short time later at my local A&E and claimed that there was a worm in my eye! The eye surgeon on duty agreed and with a steady hand made a scalpel incision in the eyeball and pulled out a 3.5cm long wriggling Loa Loa worm. This was the start of my new adventures as a medical novelty exhibit here in the UK, which included a week’s stay at the London School for Tropical Diseases for an intensive bout of treatment.

Extensive testing revealed not only Loa Loa but also two other different parasites, Hookworm and Strongyloides, which have been partying inside my body for an unknown amount of time. In the past I have had both NHS and private parasite tests, which have all come back negative, and have undertaken parasite cleanses myself. Excuse the pun, but it has been an eye-opener to realise that these nematode nasties have managed to avoid detection throughout.

Despite this seemingly bad news, I now understand the blessing of being infected with Loa Loa: without this infection, the other parasites would have remained hidden, and the long term consequences of this would have been grim. Blessings and healings can come in many different and strange ways; I went to the jungle, to Bwiti, to ask for help – little did I realise it would come in the form of a worm!

So, back to the painting…. a few weeks after treatment, whilst in my art studio, I happened to pick it up again. It was upside down when I pulled it out, and I was immediately aware that what I had painted looked like an eye made out of intricate worm-like patterns. Out came the paints, and the painting’s second phase commenced, painting on the eyelashes, and the spiralling galaxies disappearing into the darkened pupil of the eye. Now that I look back, I realise how strange and interesting it was to have my artwork subconsciously guided by a bunch of creative worms. It has made me wonder who the artist is, really?

Click here to view essay published in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Click here to listen to interview with Sarah Gregory for Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.