Art student Madyson Ysasaga has had an unconventional road to graduation, but she wouldn’t have it any other way
I began at BYU in fall of 2010. At that point, I would have never predicted that I would finally be finishing my degree in 2021. Looking back however, I am so grateful it has taken me eleven years. When I was first a student in the art department, I had no clue who I was. I was still very impressionable then. If my health hadn’t kept me away from BYU for four years, I would have been following along with what everyone else was doing in the program rather than figuring out who I was. For me, that is a critical difference that has come with time, distance and age. I often wonder what my art practice would be like right now if my double lung transplant had not happened in the middle of my BYU career. It is one of those experiences from which there was no coming back. Someone died so I could keep on living. It is only through that intense physical change that my perspective changed—my perspective on mortality, in particular.
A lot of my artwork now is connected to organ donation and chronic illness and how mortality connects the two. The funny thing is, my art making was not always this way; it was not always related to my personal experiences. In fact, I wanted my personal experiences to have nothing to do with my art for a really long time. So much of my life was (and still is) consumed with doctors visits, hospital stays and daily therapies—I wanted art to be my safe space where I was able to forget about having a chronic illness and short life expectancy for at least a little while. I deliberately kept my diagnoses taboo. I was afraid of being defined by them. More than anything, I wanted to act and be treated like everyone else—which meant acting like everyone else. Which in my case meant conducting myself like I had a physically healthy and capable body.
I wouldn’t recommend what I did to anyone, but having a chronic illness has definitely made many aspects of my life far more complicated than I would like them to be.
This past year I made a piece titled “Invisible Illness.” For this piece, I put a white and blue printed hospital gown onto a female mannequin. The exposed limbs, head and back had decals adhered to the surfaces that matched the print of the hospital gown. This piece gave me an increased understanding of how to express what I have experienced my entire life. More than anything, this piece is a plea for empathy. It is not easy to explain the complexities that come from having an invisible illness.
When you look fine, the assumption is that everything is fine; you don’t “look sick.” When that assumption is challenged, it is difficult for others to comprehend why daily tasks and regular physical functions are so hard to accomplish. Just because something is difficult to comprehend does not make it any less deserving or in need of compassion. I was diagnosed with a life-threatening chronic illness called Cystic Fibrosis at the age of eight years old. A false assumption was made that I was fine because I didn’t talk about it.
But I wasn’t fine; what I lacked was the vocabulary or ability to be able to talk about my experience. I think about the words Lehi gives to his son Jacob in the wilderness:
“Thou art my firstborn in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness. And behold, in thy childhood thou hast suffered much affliction and much sorrow, because of the rudeness of thy brethren. Nevertheless, Jacob, my first born in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (2 Ne 2:1-2).
I truly believe that we all were created the way we were by our Heavenly Father for a reason. Even our imperfections are perfect for fulfilling our God given purpose. Our success both as artists and human beings is measured by how faithful we are in doing what we have been created to do. In spite of my physical disease and disability, I have always viewed my education as a critical factor in becoming self-reliant, something that I have always wanted for myself. My disease and disability have always made me feel very self-conscious about how dependent I am on other people. To me, completing my undergraduate education is my way of being able to give back and serve others.
Majoring in art has been my way of preparing myself to be what I wish I had and what I wish I saw when I was younger. I wonder what might have happened if little Mady had an art therapist to work with her when she was admitted into the hospital at age eleven. I wonder what it would have felt like to have a professional in the medical field who understood what it felt like to be me. I can’t help but think that would have given me more hope and comfort: it might have even given me more hope for a better quality of life. I believe art should express what it means and how it feels to be human.
At its best, art should make us feel less alone. Whether you are an artist or a viewer, art is a catalyst for connection. No matter who you are and what you are going through, art is a way of saying “You belong here. I get you; thanks for getting me too.”
With her art degree, Madyson wants to be an art therapist who works with patients in hospitals and other related settings. During her time at BYU she majored in art and minored in psychology. Due to Madyson’s physical vulnerabilities, her senior year in the art program was completed remotely during the pandemic. This includes the execution and venue of her BFA thesis show, which can still be viewed online at www.altaralter.com. You can also view more of her work on her website at www.madysonysasaga.com. She can be found on Instagram @dear_donor.