Elizabeth Pinborough is one of Segullah’s own. She serves on our poetry board. She has described herself as “a Salt Lake City poet who believes in miracles.” Her list of published works is impressive with a new book called The Brain’s Lectionary: Psalms and Observations forthcoming from By Common Consent Press. Her poetic work has appeared in Dove Song: Heavenly Mother in Mormon Poetry; Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Exponent II, and Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets. She edited the book Habits of Being: Mormon Women’s Material Culture, published by Exponent II.
Her gift of words is only one of her broad array of talents. Today we are thrilled to introduce you to her as a visual artist – specifically a print maker. Our interview with Elizabeth reveals her perseverance, her perceptiveness, her elegant descriptive sensibilities, and her inquisitive mind and spirit. Her images showcased in this Summer 2020 Journal evidence her careful hand and artful eye.
Embedded in Elizabeth’s interview answers are some gorgeous jewels. Here are some of the treasures I found: generational connection; lullabies; sharks; box elder bugs; kumquat tree; Yale Divinity School; scissors; seeking; “brain based”; search for God; survivor; healer.
Segullah: Tell us about your family and where you grew up. Was this fertile soil for you?
Elizabeth: I grew up in Salt Lake City as a descendant of Mormon pioneers who settled in the SaltLake Valley. When I was eight, we moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky, for six years. In my twenties, I discovered that another set of my ancestors are buried in Warren County, where Bowling Green is. The same thing happened after I returned from graduate school. I discovered my ninth great-grandfather is buried beneath New Haven green, while his tombless headstone stands in Grove Street Cemetery across the street from Yale campus.
My mother’s family came from Texas, and my mom was a second-generation Latter-day Saint. She is a writer, composer, and lyricist. When I was a baby she sang me lullabies she wrote. She spoke and read to me constantly. I attribute my love of and facility with words to her. My father was a second-generation American, after his grandparents migrated to Salt Lake City from England in 1906. He worked in banking and manufacturing and is the most avid reader in our family.
My parents were and are great appreciators of beauty. They gave my sister and me as many opportunities as they could to introduce us to art and culture. When we moved to Kentucky, we explored the eastern United States, road tripping to Boston, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and St. Louis. They loved folk arts and history, so we visited Shaker communities and the artist town of Berea, explored Mammoth Cave, and stopped by Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace.
The Things They Carried
Segullah: What kinds of things did you like to do as a child? (Do you still like to do them?)
Elizabeth: I started ballet and piano lessons when I was five and six. I sang in choirs, participated in Girl Scouts, and played soccer and basketball as I grew older. I wasn’t overscheduled, though, since I mostly did one or two activities at a time. My dad taught me to play tennis, our family sport, which I still love. I still sing and play the piano.
The library was always a favorite haunt, and I loved doing the library’s summer reading programs. I was drawn to literature that takes an interest in characters’ psychology, like Harvey and Silas Marner, and also loved historical fiction about girls’ lives. I also loved learning about the world through reading National Geographic and watching videocassette National Geographic documentaries about Jacques Cousteau, sharks, and the Titanic.
I identify most with being an observer. I loved looking out my bedroom window in our house on Hollywood Avenue and soaking in the sun, or watching the yearly invasion of box elder bugs. I was entranced by the beauty of the natural world. I loved playing outside or in the park, swinging on our swing set or building a snowman. My parents gave me a camera of my own when I was eight because I asked to take pictures with theirs. Among old printed photos at my parents’ house I can find ones I took from my height at two and six years old. I wrote poetry and drew illustrations.
Segullah: What was your education like? Who inspired/thwarted/impressed you? In what ways did they do that?
Elizabeth: I attended public schools—three different elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school. My best elementary education happened in second through fifth grade. My third grade teacher was quite amazing. We had a class kumquat tree, read Rudyard Kipling, and became very skilled at our times tables. When we moved to Kentucky, my third-grade classroom was comparatively behind.
My mom enrolled me in extra Spanish and French classes in elementary school, and in hindsight I wish I had attended a school with more individualized attention and mandatory language-learning requirements. Our family moved back to Utah just before I started high school, and I was beyond privileged to attend a competitive high school with good course offerings and very motivated students. English was always my favorite subject, probably in large part because it was somewhat effortless for me and because I didn’t yet fully understand that I can learn subjects that are harder for my brain. I was also enthralled by the world of literature and ideas. The stories I read captivated my mind and emotions, and I began to cultivate the idea of myself as a writer with literary aspirations. As a senior I won a district-wide poetry contest, and I was co-editor in chief of my high school’s newspaper.
I was also interested in science, but I received little direction that got me studying that subject matter or thinking of future science-based careers. Chemistry was my favorite science class in high school. If algebra hadn’t been so hard for me (my sixth-grade classroom was in complete disarray, which led to some math deficits), I would probably have been more motivated to become a scientist. I also held the belief “I am not good at math,” and I never connected with it until geometry, which made much more concrete sense to me.
I applied to and was accepted to BYU. I was briefly a communications major, but I quickly switched to English literature. I was very focused on my studies, and I loved my job as an editor at the Religious Studies Center. The only C I ever got was in physical science. My mom was a writer and editor, so that was naturally a career I could picture myself pursuing, but I also wanted to be a professor. So, I decided to go in an academic direction and applied to and was accepted to Yale Divinity School, where I earned amasters of religion and the arts degree.
Segullah: What mischief did you get up to?
Elizabeth: I was not very mischievous but I was determined to have autonomy. At the same time, I was hellbent on “doing a good job,” which included behaving and complying with my parents. Those impulses were very at odds with each other, but I usually defaulted to obedience. As a result I was the sort of kid who felt more comfortable around adults than I did around other kids. I was hyper-verbal and could practice my conversational skills with them.
I got in trouble a few times in school for very small infractions. I remember learning as a child that there was a double standard for boys’ and girls’ behavior. When I was in kindergarten, I somehow thought that cutting my bangs in the bathroom was a good idea. I got in trouble for that, but the two boys in my class who intimidated my best friend and me by throwing actual scissors across the table at us never did.
Segullah: What significant events in your life helped shape who you are now? In what ways?
Elizabeth: Moving to Kentucky shaped me. I got a taste of a culture where Latter-day Saints were not the majority, and I had some opportunities to speak on behalf of my beliefs in public. I also saw Latter-day Saints who clung together based on shared beliefs and inclusivity.
The experience of living with mental health difficulties defined my late adolescence and early adulthood. Since I was very little, I had significant struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and mood regulation issues, and anxiety and depression accompanied me through college and graduate school. Following graduate school, I struggled with even more intense, unrelenting symptoms, and I began seeking healing.
When I was 29, I sustained a traumatic brain injury(TBI”)* that left me with new disabilities and that completely upended my life. I spent the better part of four years in bed as I gradually climbed out of a deep hole of chronic pain, PTSD, dysfunction, and mental difficulty. Even though I was struggling mightily with my mental well-being before, I had never experienced the catastrophe of losing memories, of not being able to read, of having a hard time walking or using my hands. I had to set down my entire life, including writing poetry and making art.
During that time, I focused solely on healing. I studied the brain and treatments for TBI nonstop. Through my studies, I experienced a paradigm shift. I learned that the brain is plastic, meaning it can change. Brain injuries can be healed, and what looks like a disorder such as anxiety or depression could actually be the result of an injury or other trauma to the brain. I believe this shift from a disorder-based to a brain-based understanding of mental health is the future. I also learned about how to properly rehabilitate TBI. Initially I was given bad advice. Doctors still tell patients to rest, when what they actually need is to keep stimulating their brain in a way that doesn’t exacerbate their symptoms. When I learned this, I used graded exercise, anti-inflammatory eating principles, and targeted exercises to improve my brain function.
Segullah: You are a writer, poet and artist…and you do lots of other wonderful and creative things. Which of your many talents take precedent over the others? Or do they rotate? If they do, what does that depend on?
Elizabeth: I will always be a word worker first. My interest in other artistic pursuits ebbs and flows. I am always working on a skill, whether it’s playing the piano or creative sewing projects or drawing. I tend to be more of a generalist and I just love to create, make gifts for people, and most importantly, to connect with others. I have found art to be very therapeutic and is one of the ways I cope with the challenges of living in a stressful world.
Segullah: Besides being a productive creative, do you have other employment or side hustles?
Elizabeth: I work as a freelance writer and editor. I currently have two clients. I am ghostwriting a personal history, and I copy-edit Bravery Magazine. I’m also working on developing my own holistic healing business.
Segullah: How do your convictions and faith express themselves in the art you create?
Elizabeth: My questions about God are at the heart of everything I create. My linocut collection, “Paper Bullets of the Brain”, is an exercise in creating icons from objects held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. My poems are filled with my search for God. In my book The Brain’s Lectionary, I share some of my convictions about the brain and healing and raising awareness about traumatic brain injuries and neurological differences.
I am contributing to literature written by Latter-day Saints about disability and chronic illness. My disabilities are invisible, but that does not mean they’re not real and limiting. I want people living with illnesses to know that they have a lot to contribute. I want to celebrate that and deconstruct the ableist narrative that you have to be a certain way to contribute.
When the brain is injured, life becomes extremely hard. I want people to love their brains and realize that they need to protect them and take care of them, as well as protect the brains of everyone around them. We only get one brain, and it controls everything. Neuroscience research is exploding, and it won’t be too long before common experiences like mine, where care was inadequate, will be a thing of the past. People will be able to heal much more quickly and much less expensively.
We need to discuss the brain in the context of spiritual experience, too. LDS discourse is underdeveloped when it comes to the complexities of the brain and emotions, and my book opens a very small window into that conversation. The health of my brain affects my beliefs about God. I have suffered through hundreds of sacrament meetings because of my OCD and scrupulosity (a kind of religious-themed OCD). Having experienced a daily roller coaster peaking at believer and bottoming out at atheist, I have come to understand that those beliefs are because of brain states and not the actual state of my heart. If I ask myself and my heart, do you believe in God, I say yes. If I ask my brain, I get a yes, a no, or a maybe depending on how I’m feeling. I want people to find a voice in my work that says, I’ve been there. Keep searching, keep believing.
Segullah: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in being creatively productive?
Elizabeth: My biggest challenge in being productive creatively is anxiety and self-doubt. Before my injury, I had desires to create grand works, but I would get stymied by how overwhelming the project seemed and by my worries that it wouldn’t be good. I suffered over it and felt so frustrated by it. Since my injury, I still feel anxiety, but I don’t take my creativity quite as seriously. I still feel frustrated and like I can’t create everything I want to as fast as I’d like, but I have an identity as a survivor and a healer. I’m glad to be alive and able to create now. It’s amazing that I can do it.
I also know that my worth is not based on my productivity or even how good anyone else thinks my work is. I am able to overcome creative hurdles that I wasn’t able to at the time of my injury. Even as I feel limited, I can always grow beyond where I am today. My growth potential and the growth potential of every person is so much greater than we even realize. I have experienced deep daily failure doing just the tiniest things like getting dressed and feeding myself (which really are everything) that I ironically feel more and more like I can take on bigger challenges. If I’m not equipped right now, I know that I can become equipped with practice. If I continue to work at it, my brain will grow to fill the gaps.
Segullah: Do you have dedicated hours or specific studio times – or is your time more organic? What systems/inspirations/conditions goose you into your most satisfying work?
Elizabeth: I know that my brain’s energy peaks in the morning and in the evening. Those are the hours I’m in my creative zone. I am starting to work with that fact instead of feeling like a failure when I can’t get work done or get it done as quickly. Doing the Mormon Poetry Writing Month this year on Facebook helped me show up to create each day. Sometimes I forget that I can ask myself to be creative, instead of just waiting for the muse to strike. I want to work more and more to become a creator who spends intentional time every day working on my craft.
I create in two modes that are very familiar to other creators. I take in a bunch of information and associations, and my brain goes to work and spits a poem out from my subconscious, almost miraculously. Other times, I have to consciously comb over material and message so that I can figure out exactly what I’m trying to say. I feel frustrated until the last pin gets pushed into place, which I am discovering will happen if I keep showing up to the work.
Reading literary theory, philosophy, the scriptures, and poetry cause my brain to create interesting associations that often come out as poetry. As far as visual art goes, I know I’m seeking for images or objects that symbolize my experience or illustrate a concept. Visual art for me is therapeutic and a way that I can get more in touch with my body and my mind. Art requires physical stamina and strength, and for a long time I would make without really planning or thinking about what I was doing, almost in trance or a stream of consciousness, and make a lot of mistakes. I am trying to become more conscious of
my choices beforehand.
Segullah: Thank you so much, Elizabeth. You have been candid, informative and inspiring. I appreciate your challenge for all of us us to “love our brains” and embrace our own creativity with fearlessness. Congratulations on your upcoming (2021) book The Brain’s Lectionary: Psalms and Observations from By Common Consent Press!
*I don’t describe the specifics of my injury because it’s a huge PTSD trauma trigger for me. A lot of people with TBIs end up with PTSD. Some people might be okay with sharing, but for me it’s akin to describing my own death.