We had the good fortune of connecting with Megan Farrell-Zweigle and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Megan, how has your work-life balance changed over time?
My work life balance was a large part of the reason that I left my “traditional” career. I was working as an occupational therapist, and ran myself into the ground trying to manage that, my health, and my art business. I thought that going full time as an artist would help me find balance, but at first it got worse. When you’re your own boss, the great thing is there’s no one to tell you when to work. The hard thing, is there’s no one to tell you when to clock out. Add in working from home, in a studio apartment, and I was pulling 15+ hour days just trying to make more art because in my mind if I wasn’t making product all hours of the day, I wasn’t reaching my full earning potential.
I’ve been at this for 4 years now, and while some may still say I’m a work-aholic, I’m much better than I was. I do my best to make dinner my cut off time, and I keep most of my work in an office that I can close the door to. It makes it easier to let my mind relax when I cannot see the ‘piles of projects and orders to fill all the time. I also made a very conscious choice that there are some art forms I will NEVER sell or monetize. I call them my “sacred crafts.” For me, that is knitting and crochet. I’m a creative, I want to be making things all the time. So choosing an art form that I can still play with and create with during my down time was important, but setting that hard boundary about not monetizing it has been huge for my mental health.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
If you told me 10 years ago that I would be a full-time artist specializing in medical illustration, I would have laughed and promptly ended the conversation. Ten years ago I was preparing to start an accelerated program to earn my Masters degree in occupational therapy, and wanted to work in psychiatry. I was hugely into art in high school, but focused mainly on still-life’s, and traditional portraiture. When I got to college, I dove head-first into studying and trying to manage my deteriorating health, but I didn’t leave time for drawing — except to study for my anatomy classes.
While I navigated the healthcare world as an undiagnosed patient, I also was learning all I could in my courses. Everyone complained memorizing muscles and nerves, but I lived for it. It all made sense to me, and was helping me make sense of what was happening in my own body. But after those classes ended, art once again took a back seat.
That is until I took my first OT job after graduating. Suddenly, I was feeling the emotional weight of my own disability, and that of my students and clients. It’s one thing to be immersed in the academia but it’s a whole different experience when you are building relationships with other people who are experiencing life every day as a disabled person. It’s complex, and sad, and beautiful, and really really overwhelming.
To cope, I went back to what I knew: the anatomy and the physiology of disability. I started illustrating brains, and muscles, and hearts to match the epilepsy, and dystrophy, and cardiac issues I was seeing every day. Slowly, I realized that many people who deal with health issues (and those who don’t!) have no idea what is really going on beneath the surface of their own skin. I was trying to take organs and bones and make them anatomically correct, and aesthetically pleasing to open up that communication.
At first, I was just drawing for myself as an outlet. I was drawing the organs that have “failed” me, and trying to see them as beautiful. Soon, it became evident that there is some sort of healing that happens when someone with an invisible health condition sees their own anatomy represented in a beautiful way.
As time passed and my own health continued to decline, I continued illustrating. I found woodburning in 2017, and for whatever reason it just clicked. I loved the smell. I loved the slowness. I loved taking something organic and putting skulls and brains on it, forcing people to remember that these images that are so often seen as “morbid” are just as natural as trees.
When I was unable to keep up with the physical demands of OT, I made the decision to step down from my position and pursue art full time. It was never my plan, it was not an easy decision to make, but I don’t regret any part of it.
I’ve been able to meet and connect with so many incredible people that resonate with medical art. Whether it’s a personal connection, or they know someone who has medical challenges, I’ve been amazed at the response to the odd little niche that I’ve found.
What I’m most proud of so far is my Illustrated Illness Series where I mix botany and anatomy to represent the physical and emotional experience of specific diseases. The process of creating these pieces allowed me to express feelings I didn’t have words for. When I was first diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, I often wished I had a better way to help others understand what it felt like. It is an incredible privilege to connect with people who have had a similar experience, and somehow the art I create has become the thing that draws us together.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Oooof. Rochester is a wealth of creativity and really good food. I’d say that visiting the Memorial Art Galley is a must, as well as stopping at a few local artist havens like Little Button Craft, Ritual Clay Company, Craft Company No. 6, and Shop Peppermint. There is so much talent in this city and so many shops that showcase artists of all mediums.
We’d have to go to my favorite coffee shops (yes there are multiple!) which are Ugly Duck (for a coffee smoothie), Fuego (for a French quarter), and we’d try to find Little Monster Coffee popped-up somewhere!
I’d make sure to invite you during Rochester International Jazz Fest, so we could head downtown and enjoy the food and the music, but if you don’t come then we’d have to go see the Conservatory, and George Eastman House!
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’d love to dedicate this shoutout to my creative home in Rochester, New York. Specifically, the artists at the small, wonderful studio I’m so lucky to be a part of. Though I started my business with the support of my incredible family and friends, it’s in the past 2 years since developing a friendship with Sara of Ritual Clay Company that I’ve really found a community of creatives that I feel like I can call home. Sara, Laura, Christy, Abbi, and the rest of the Ritual Team have been absolutely amazing whether it’s in creative trouble shooting, physical help with navigating art shows as a disabled artist, or emotional support as we’ve navigated these past few chaotic years, I’ll never be able to thank them enough.
Other: TikTok : @unstrungstudios Email: Megan@unstrungstudios.com