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The Artist:
Michael John Coleman

dcity magazine
Cover Story

by Sophia Muessig

Have you ever been gripped by an image so powerful that you are stunned in appreciation of its beauty and depth? Michael John Coleman, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit healthcare organization MAGNUM--Migraine Awareness Group: a National Understanding for Migraineurs--also known as the National Migraine Association, is also an artist. He speaks openly and candidly about living with and suffering from debilitating migraines and the one time he had thought about ending it all.

The Migraine disease is a serious health and disability problem that affects approximately 23 to 26 million Americans, most of whom are women, with up to 38 million Americans having  Migraine genetic propensity.

Migraines can be life-threatening. To put this in perspective, it has been estimated that more people died from Migrainous Stroke last year than were murdered with handguns.

glancing pirouette maquellage
"Glancing Pirouette Maquellage"
©Michael Coleman

alexandria dockside view
"Alexandria Dockside View"
©Michael Coleman

Self-taught in his primary medium, photography, he is an internationally recognized award-winning artist in alternative-process photography and imaging. Since the early 1970's, when he began experimenting with photographic interpretations of subjects ranging from bicycles to nudes, his work has increased in beauty and intensity. It has been published in numerous national magazines, including the specialized PHOTOgraphic and PROphoto magazines, as well as in books such as The Best of Photography International. Known for its painterly and impressionistic style, Coleman’s work has been exhibited in more than 175 shows. He has received accolades from such authorities as Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, curator of painting and sculpture of the National Museum of Art; Peter Thomas, former den of the Corcoran Museum and Art school; Howard Paine of National Geographic; and William DeLooper, curator of the Phillips Collection. Some of the permanent collections that feature his work are Freddie Mac, the Mortgage Bankers Association, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and Burroughs Pharmaceutical headquarters in Germany. U.S. Congressman James P. Moran currently displays 24 of Coleman’s works in his constituent offices. Other examples of his work hang in the Principle Gallery, in the historic 200-year-old Gilpin House Building at 208 King Street, Old Town Alexandria.








These major accomplishments in two diverse fields Coleman has achieved in spite of, though at the same time partly because of, an agonizing, disabling disease, intractable migraine.

A native Washingtonian, Michael John Coleman started suffering from severe migraines at the age of six. Excruciating pain mixed with mind-numbing drugs has affected everything in his life, from what foods he can eat to what he can achieve physically. He has gone through life walking on eggshells, waiting for the next migraine to explode in his brain. When it does, he must spend days and weeks curled into a fetal position in darkness. Sound and light increase the anguish. They become the executioners of pain.




waking from dreams
"Waking from Dreams"
©Michael Coleman

requiem for a gladiolus
"Requiem for a Gladiolus"
©Michael Coleman

In 1985, Coleman suffered perhaps his most violent migraine attack. Lasting 17 days, he remembers each moment vividly. The first five days and nights were a sleepless, painfilled agony. He wandered around his apartment, suffering increased pain from every ray of light, every slightest sound, every creak of the floor boards (sensation is amplified during a migraine attack). Suffering from five days and nights of sleep deprivation, not in his right mind (who would be?), at three in the morning he took his walnut-gripped 9-mm semi-automatic pistol from its hiding place. His mind had tunneled, and his only thought was to get rid of the pain, which was all that existed, all that mattered. The pain had become an all encompassing-god. He walked to the end of the bed, which reminded him evilly that he could not sleep, and sat down on it. He hadn’t decided; he was thinking, as those in great pain often do, of whether he wanted to live like this or die. How can one live in a state of such pain-filled exhaustion? He recalls feeling the cool meal surface of the slide against his throbbing temple, that it was actually soothing and pleasant compared to what was going through the rest of his mind and body. Stiffly he pulled back the blued slide. He watched as the first cartridge went flying out, onto the dark stair landing, where it could do no harm but shatter the silence against the hardwood floor. Slowly he removed the magazine, which housed the seven remaining rounds, their brass casings with their copper-jacketed bullets reflecting what little light there was. Very slowly and methodically, one by one, Michael pushed each round out with his thumb. Every time one of those heavy cartridges hit the floor, his migraine amplified the sound into a deafening, echoing crash. And as each one rolled away, he knew he had eliminated another option to end his pain, an option he knew now he did not want available to him.

Eventually all eight rounds that had been housed in the weapon lay scattered about the landing, and Coleman knew that his life would go on, as would the migraine. And it did, for twelve more days. Perhaps it was his Catholic background— many Catholics consider suicide a straight-to-hell sin--but Coleman could not help fearing that hell might be just another raging migraine, but eternal. He chose hell on earth, though he recalls thinking that there must be a reason for such an ordeal.

After these five days, physical exhaustion allowed him to sleep for three or four hours at a stretch. Often, however, pain wakened him to fits of projectile vomiting. Though he was unable to keep down most of his medication, he knew that the worst of this nightmare was over, for he had refused to give in to his incurable disease.

In the early 1980's, Coleman was working as art director with the Naval Sea Systems Command and serving on the board of directors of Washington’s Art league, Inc. Then he was juried into the nation’s oldest and largest art center, the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria. In 1992, after a decade’s tenure as the only resident photographic artist there, he left the factory. His migraines were becoming more intense and more frequent, and his work suffered. He seemed unable to do his best work in the center’s structured environment or to deal with the politics of the art world. Eventually he moved his work to the Principle Gallery, then located on Cameron Street.

sister golden hair
"Sister Golden Hair"
© Michael John Coleman

But he needed help, and he looked to the government for the disability benefits for which he had paid into the system for years (Federal disability benefits are available only to the taxpayers who have paid into the trust fund over many years of employment.) But he met over and over only the frustrating chant:


"Migraines don’t qualify."          

"Go to this doctor."

"Go to that doctor."

"No, we won’t insure you."


Within a few months, he realized he was not going to get anything from the government without a fight. It is difficult to accept that one is disabled, and an invisible disability is an additional handicap to be dealt with. By now, Coleman was fighting his battle against the government in court. He thought of the rights of those others suffering from the same disabling migraines and of the frustration and additional suffering that bureaucratic red tape must be bringing them, too.

In 1993, with the support of his sister Marie and the help of his best friend, Terri Miller Burchfield, a Congressional investigator, Michael John Coleman embarked on founding MAGNUM, an organization that would work to change the laws to protect and help people suffering from uncontrollable migraines. And so something good has come out of the nightmarish experiences he lived through: he was attacking the disease that had torn away so much of his life. After incorporating MAGNUM in 1994, he realized that the contacts he had in the art community and those in the business and government communities who were familiar with his art could benefit this new organization and help get migraineurs the press they needed. Encouraging letters from such people as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Tipper Gore, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senator Charles Robb(VA), Senator John Warner (VA), Senator Paul Coverdell (GA), Congressman James P. Moran (VA), Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), and former Congressman Bill Paxton (NY) and Congresswoman Susan Molinary (NY) spurred Coleman and his group on. They knew they could help thousands, maybe millions of people.

mikieLater that year, Coleman won his civil case with the help of Attorney Mark W. Byrum, Jr., now a MAGNUM general counsel, and he started receiving modest disability benefits. This victory of David over Goliath has set a precedent for other intractable migraine sufferers. Now thousands of people may get the medications and other help they needed to keep their migraine attacks from worsening and to prevent deadly migraine-induced strokes.

Today, MAGNUM reaches millions of people who either suffer from migraines or have loved ones who do. MAGNUM has received endorsements from the leading migraine headache medical centers in the country, such as the MHNI ( Michigan Head-Pain & Neurological Institute ) and the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Its board of directors includes leading medical experts. Its medical advisor chair is Fred D. Sheftell, M.D., F.A.C.P., president of ACHE (America Council of Headache Education), chairman of WHA (World Headache Alliance), and the founder and director of the famed New England Center for Headache. MAGNUM has achieved high visibility. Coleman and his group have been featured in U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Harper’s Bazaar, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Enquirer, Reuters Wire Service releases, and the FDA’s journal, The FDA Consumer Magazine. Upcoming features on national television include interviews of MAGNUM board members Coleman, Burchfield, and Dr. Stuart Stark on CNBC, Life Time TV, Bravo, and past interviews on ABC, CBS, and Reuter’s International. MAGNUM’s website, , is the number-one nonprofit migraine-related website on the Internet.

Millions seek help today, and MAGNUM’s offices are flooded with calls, e-mail, and letters from both concerned and desperate people. With fourteen board members, a dozen advisors, and a base staff of only four regular employees, Coleman is overworked but very happy. He has not abandoned his career in art. Currently he is preparing for an exhibition and private viewing at the prestigious Covington & Burling Law Offices in downtown Washington. These works range in price from $250 to $3,000, which he will donate to MAGNUM.

For more information about or for volunteer opportunities with MAGNUM and migraine sufferers, please contact  or (703)739-9384.
Copyright 1999

DCity Magazine

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All information offered on the Web Site, whether by a lay person or a health care professional, is for educational purposes only and should not, in any way, be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, or recommendation for treatment. While this information can provide you with a basis for discussion with your health care team, it cannot take the place of professional medical care. Please consult your practitioner.
1999 - 2012 and all other years MAGNUM, Inc. All rights reserved.
Artwork Michael John Coleman, Janet McKenzie, or Cara Weston. All other artists noted by 1976-2012