Muralist Lydia Emily Uses Art to Publicize Hardships of Life with MS

Muralist Lydia Emily Uses Art to Publicize Hardships of Life with MS

Perched atop a lift at the intersection of Main and Third streets in downtown Los Angeles, artist Lydia Emily cheerfully answered questions from a reporter 2,500 miles away via cellphone while working on a mural three stories high. Periodically, she interrupted the interview to banter with co-workers, and gawking passersby.

Her good humor belied the fact that Lydia Emily – her last name is Archibald, though she rarely uses it – takes up to 28 pills a day to ward off the constant pain associated with multiple sclerosis (MS), with which she was diagnosed in 2014. She also must drink two pots of coffee to counteract the drowsiness from all that pain medication.

Lydia Emily Archibald stands in front of her recently completed mural in Los Angeles. (Photos courtesy of Lydia Emily Archibald)

But dealing with adversity is nothing new for Lydia Emily, 47. It’s a challenge she has embraced along with raising two daughters as a single mother, including a 16-year-old with autism, and overcoming cervical cancer in 2012.

Lydia Emily, a Chicago native who traveled the world with her parents before settling in Los Angeles 17 years ago, describes herself as a self-taught artist who flunked the only art class she ever took. Despite that initial setback, her work has been featured at shows in Milan, Berlin, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Lydia Emily has always used her art to bring attention to international political and social issues, like sex trafficking and the displacement of people. She started as a street artist, but now focuses on murals and portraits.

“I was always socially conscious,” said the artist, whose mother was a civil rights activist. “My motto has always been, ‘art can do more than just hang. It can help.’”

‘MS On My Mind’

In recent years, Lydia Emily has added MS to her list of causes. Her largest project is ‘MS On My Mind,’ an effort funded by EMD Serono to highlight the emotional and physical toll MS takes on those with the disease, as well as their caregivers.

‘MS On My Mind’ encourages people to share their stories through its website. Using those stories, Lydia Emily — the campaign’s creative director — has painted five portraits that capture how MS affects people’s daily lives in ways that often are invisible to others.

Lydia Emily Archibald

In one painting, for instance, a woman dries her hair with a blow dryer resembling an anvil to illustrate how heavy things feel to those with MS. In another, the leg of a man sitting in a chair is painted as an anchor to highlight the common MS “drop foot” symptom that makes feet feel so heavy.

As part of the campaign, in 2015 Lydia Emily created large murals with hopeful messages for those affected by MS in four cities: Los Angeles, California; Houston, Texas; Portland, Oregon; and Louisville, Kentucky.

Recently, she painted portable eight-square-foot murals during Walk MS events in San Diego, California, Tampa, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, that people could inscribe with their own messages. The three murals were shipped to Seattle, Washington, and assembled into one 24-foot-long mural.

In late April, Lydia Emily gave the keynote speech at the National MS Society’s 15th Annual On the Move luncheon in Washington, D.C., and also testified before the U.S. Senate on the need to control the rising prices of MS therapies.

Staying busy despite constant pain

“It’s a busy life, for sure,” she said. “I’m happy to be doing all the work I’m doing.”

Lydia Emily maintains a hectic schedule despite constant pain from MS. She became blind in her left eye a year ago. Her right leg feels like it’s on fire, and she uses a cane. She has to tie a paint brush to her hand because of her tremors.

Recent mural by Lydia Emily Archibald illustrates the hardships of living with MS.

She’s taken four MS medications, none of which have worked for her disease type, secondary progressive MS (SPMS). She’s about to start another medication, and is optimistic about its effectiveness.

Still, Lydia Emily loves her work and has many different projects going at once. For every mural she gets paid to do, she paints another using her own money, and for every portrait she gets paid for, she gives one away for free, she said.

On her own, Lydia Emily has painted murals with inspiring messages in various cities. The art-nouveau mural she was painting during her interview with MS News Today is for all those who deal with other kinds of challenges — from lupus to difficult relationships. They also need hope, she said.

“I feel like anything I can do to broaden our community,” said Lydia Emily. “Making our family bigger is what I want to do.”


  1. Rosemarie McGourty says:

    Love the symbolism you use for ALL us MS’ers! While we alll struggle differently, we all struggle! Thank you for pushing through and sharing your beautiful gift.

  2. I have Relapsing – Remitting MS. I am 66 and a Breast Cancer survivor. There are so many symptoms with MS. You talk about pain – yes – but more than that, on occasion, I feel my whole body is being crushed in a vise. I love your art. Good luck with your new medications.

  3. Alison McL says:

    Emily-A wonderful woman who deals with SO much- I keep thinking that I have it hard, then read about someone who goes through and has been through so much and yet does great things-yes we all have MS on our minds, but with art and a sense that one day…things will be better day by day we’ll get there…

  4. Pik says:

    Beautiful Artwork!28 pills&coffee,OMG. Drop foot,cane,emotions,leg fire,pain,can relate.2day got Botox in leg for distonia. Im on my 4th DMT,got worse on Ocrevus. Its hard to keep positive. It’s nice to see you keep world awareness through art.😎

  5. madeline newton says:

    fantastic murals …getting the message out for what we put up with on a daily bases is great for all need to see and hear about the problems that they don’t see and some think are just made up really helps all of us…thank you ….keep up the great work …love and happiness to you and all of your family ..

  6. I also battle secondary progressive MS, and have been using my strengths as a writer to engage with others impacted by the disease. I’ve used my energy to transition my active normal life to a “new normal”. I now ski with a sled ski, boat with a modified sailboat for individuals with MS and other disabilities, climb stairs with a chairlift, and swim using a waterproof lift to gain access to the pool. I do miss walking, hiking, and skiing with my legs, but feeling the breeze on my face and the joy in my heart reminds me how wonderful life can be. Your art documents our journey so beautifully. Hope and Faith remain beacons we can reach for, along with political pressure on the FDA and the government. This disease has long been hidden. Now, there’s growing presence on the word stage with people from all walks of life, including celebrities that are being added to the growing queue of humanity seeking a cure for this debilitating disease. I pray for a cure and continue to fight to be heard – despite the fact that I may “look great”. “

  7. Joan says:

    I really admire Emily’s art, persistence, and compassion for others. As a poster above said, thank you for pushing through.

    All best wishes for success with the new medication.

  8. Linda L Halvorson says:

    Wow. Such wonderful visuals depicting what I and too many others experience. Please publish a book because I want all of them.

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