Artist inspired by struggle with anorexia


Judith Shaw stands in the middle of the Mad Art Gallery in Benton Park, pointing to cardboard cutouts of her entire body and plaster casts of her torso and thighs, explaining the origins of these sculptures now hanging on the gallery’s walls. With names such as “Running on Empty,” “Starved to Perfection” and “Go Figure,” Shaw’s art details a 15-year journey into — and out of — anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder whereby she, like other sufferers, starved herself to emaciation. Sometimes, the sufferer is so determined to be stick-thin, she (or he) dies in the process. Shaw, instead, eventually sought treatment at the McCallum Place Eating Disorders Treatment Center in Webster Groves.

About 45 sculptures from Shaw’s 150-piece collection called “Body of Work: The Art of Eating Disorder Recovery” are on display through Sunday, March 1 at the Mad Art Gallery, 2727 S. 12th Street.

The sculptures are primitive and provocative; Shaw says she doesn’t consider herself an artist but rather a “visual, intuitive thinker.” However, as she progressed through treatment, she says her artistic voice began to surface, and she used this voice to forge a new relationship with her body and “reclaim my life.”

Recently, the 55-year-old Shaw, a certified yoga instructor who lived on the East Coast and London before finding her way to St. Louis and McCallum Place three years ago, talked about her arduous recovery, how she is making peace with her Jewish roots and what she now sees when she looks in the mirror.

How did this show come to be?

When I entered treatment, I was given a written assignment that I thought was so clich é. Several weeks later, I came up with a way to respond to the assignment in the form of a life-size cutout of myself. It was a powerful image for me. After I was out of treatment, a therapist asked me what (the cutout) would look like now. I knew it would be bigger and fuller, more dimensional. I began to explore that.

Much of your work is encased inside of boxes. Why?

I always felt boxy in my body. Eventually, the box became a useful metaphor and another medium for my art. I began using boxes as a way to frame my illness and recovery. Looking inside the box I can recall emotions, relationships and stages and events from my life.

Many of us think of anorexia as a disease that primarily affects young women, but you battled it for more than 15 years, starting at age 39. What finally got you into treatment?

There wasn’t an isolated incident or event. I fully believe that I was predisposed to an eating disorder based on a deep-rooted sense of worthlessness. What finally drew me to treatment after playing this game with myself for a long time is that I started breaking bones.

Were you heavy growing up?

I was always a normal-to- thin person. But I never felt good in my body.

You are divorced now, with two grown sons, but you were married with young children when the eating disorder first manifested itself. Looking back, do you know what triggered it?

Raising a family is a process and sometimes a lonely one. My former husband was on the fast track at a New York law firm. I chose to stay home. But I was ill-prepared to be a mother; I don’t think I anticipated what that took. My husband was very busy with his work. I felt isolated and alone so I drew on physical activity to help make me feel better. I got a lot of attention from that. I am one who can take things to excess. So if moderate exercise is good, excessive exercise has to be better. Same thing with food – if low fat is good, then no fat has to be better.

How much did you weigh at your lowest and how much are you now?

I weighed 85 pounds and now I am 30 pounds more. But it’s not about the weight, though the number represents strength and vitality and a ton of personal growth work. Now, 30 pounds heavier, I feel so much lighter. All the emotional stuff weighing me down isn’t there or as much there anymore.

Do you worry about falling back into old patterns?

Recovery is really hard but I am so committed to it. This art actually helps me address the new hurdles and challenges. It’s now almost three years out of treatment that I have maintained a healthy weight. I had no idea how much starving yourself affects every organ of the body. Part of the reason I stayed in St. Louis was having a recovery team with a therapist and dietician. It is so important because it’s too big to do alone.

You said you grew up rebelling against your Jewish roots. Sometimes, religion can be a way to connect with people, especially in a new community. Have you looked to Judaism to help you with that?

The more comfortable I get with myself, the more I feel my way of looking at the world is not worthless, the more I am drawn back to Judaism. When I left treatment and was around in St. Louis someone said, “You should meet Rabbi Susan” (Talve of Central Reform Congregation). I called her and she so got it. She invited me to her office and I actually went. She connected me with other Jewish yoga teachers. . . I’ve gone to temple at CRC a few times and realize that the degree of Jewishness I now feel is good enough.

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

Sometimes I wonder how I could let myself get so big. But I feel so great and so strong and so connected. I completed my yoga teaching certificate and I found this passion for art. I also see what’s going on in the world and I think, how could none of this have mattered? The only thing that mattered was this number on the scale when I woke up in the morning. What a waste of life. I do have regrets about that.

What do you hope viewers take away from your show?

A sense that it is important to be truthful and honest with yourself. I also hope that those who struggle with an eating disorder seek professional help because it is such a complex illness.