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Gillian Genser

From EverybodyWiki Bios & Wiki

Gillian Genser (born 1958 or 1959) is a Canadian sculptor based in Toronto. Her works are designed to make environmental statement about the negative impact of humans on other life on the planet and they involve natural materials like eggs shells, bones, coral and sea shells. While working on a sculpture, Adam, made largely with mussels, she inadvertently developed heavy metals poisoning.

Early life and education[edit]

Genser was born into a Canadian Jewish family. Her great-grandfather, Avrom Pinsky, was the first rabbi in Edmonton after he emigrated from Lithuania. Her maternal grandfather, a Trotskyist, emigrated from Russia in 1928 and later became an indigenous rights activist and rabbi in The Pas.[1]

Genser studied computer science at the University of Toronto.[1]


Genser became a sculptor. Since 1991, Genser has incorporated unusual natural materials in her work, starting with egg shells and eventually animal bones, shells, plants, and coral.[2][3]

In 1998, she finished a sculpture based on Lilith, from Jewish folklore. She wanted to work on a sculpture of Adam next. Whereas Lilith was made from egg shells, she gravitated towards the use of blue mussel shells for Adam.[3] In a BBC interview, she explained that the shells look similar to muscle fibers, and cited a pun about how "his muscles were made from mussels".[2] She would buy large quantities of the shells from a seller in Toronto's Chinatown and shape them to fit into her work, grinding them or using a dentist's drill.[4]

Heavy metal poisoning[edit]

File:Adam by Gillian Genser.jpg
Adam by Genser, made in large part from blue mussels.

Soon after starting work on Adam, she developed strange health problems. She had struggled with autoimmune disorders for years, and at first thought the new symptoms were related, but they were varied and unusual. She had symptoms of dementia, spatial confusion, insomnia, headaches, vomiting, aches in her limbs, periods of immobility in her limbs, poor memory, and deafness in one ear.[3][5] She told the BBC that she felt agitated, anxious, and suicidal.[2] At one point her weight dropped down to 76 lb (34 kg).[5] As she sought medical help, doctors would ask about the kinds of materials she worked with, which Genser would dismiss because she only used natural media. She was prescribed a variety of medications that did not help sufficiently.[5] When she cleaned her ventilation system in 2013, removing years worth of collected dust, she felt weak and was bedridden for a week, in pain and with difficulty speaking.[4] With her physical and mental health deteriorating, she wanted to try to finish Adam and so continued work.

Only many years after her initial symptoms, in 2015, did she receive a blood test for heavy metals at the Environmental Health Clinic at Toronto's Women's College Hospital, which came back showing lead and high levels of arsenic.[5] She read about health problems caused by seafood and spoke to a professor at the Royal Ontario Museum, who explained to her the danger of working with mussel shells, which accumulate metals present in water.[3][5] She had been coming into contact with the metals by handling the shells and, when grinding them, inhaling them, sometimes working with them for sessions lasting as long as 12 hours.[5][2] She told the CBC that the dust coated her arms and the sculpture, and explained that her ventilation procedures were not very diligent.[5]

According to Genser, she has not recovered from the poisoning in 2018, and she was still suffering from several symptoms.[3]

Genser finished Adam in 2015. Part of her intention for the piece was to make an environmental statement about the negative impact of humans on other life on the planet. She told the CBC that she began with "that terrible statement that man has dominion over all the animals, and I wanted to re-state that and say that approach took us to a very bad place. [...] It is very ironic that, of course, this piece, who was representing the first Adam, was so toxic and that he poisoned me."[5]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Kaminer, Michael (February 4, 2019). "This Jewish Feminist Artist Was Poisoned — By Her Own Artwork". The Forward. Retrieved May 13, 2020.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "I was poisoned by my art". BBC News. January 11, 2019. Retrieved 2020-05-05. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Elfrink, Tim (December 3, 2018). "An artist suffered mysterious symptoms for years. Then she realized her sculpture was poisoning her". Washington Post. Retrieved 2020-05-05. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Genser, Gillian (2018-11-28). "My beautiful death". Toronto Life. Retrieved 2020-05-05. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Goodyear, Sheena (December 4, 2018). "This sculptor got heavy metal poisoning from working with mussel shells". CBC. Retrieved May 4, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)

External links[edit]

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