Art and Creative Self Expression: Tools for Transcending Chronic Pain and Illness

By Mary J. Yerkes
NABBW’s Living with Chronic Illness Expert

Can tapping into our creativity help us transcend chronic pain and illness? Can art heal not only our bodies but also our soul and spirits?

Questions like these have been part of my ongoing quest to live well with chronic pain and illness. While some answers remain elusive, others are more readily apparent.

Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases in 1997, I have found artistic self-expression a valuable tool for transcending the physical and emotional pain I live with daily. Over the years, creative expression has helped me overcome traumatic losses, find relief from overwhelming emotions, and experience spiritual and personal growth.

As children, you probably found enjoyment in creativity activities — drawing pictures, making sand castles, or cutting paper snowflakes. However, if you are like most adults, you may not consider yourself creative. But everyone can experience the healing power of art and creativity and use it to manage chronic pain and illness.

Transcending Illness: Pierre August Renoir

As an example of using art to transcend pain and illness consider painter Pierre August Renoir (1841-1919). Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1898, Renoir dealt with his illness by expressing the fullness and beauty of life through art, finding it deeply spiritual.

Even as he lost the use of his body, he expressed great joy in creativity, writing in his journal:

I believe I am nearer to God by being humble before this splendor (nature); by accepting the role I have been given to play in life; by honoring this majesty without self-interest, and above all, without asking for anything, being confident that He who has created everything has forgotten nothing.

In his memoir, Renoir, My Father, his son Jean remembers his father in his later years:

His hands were terribly deformed. His rheumatism had made his joints stiff and caused the thumbs to turn inward towards the palms, and the fingers to bend toward the wrists. Visitors who were unprepared for this could not take their eyes off his deformity. Though they did not dare to mention it, their reaction would be expressed by some such phrase as, “It isn’t possible! With hands like that, how can he pain those pictures? There’s some mystery somewhere.” The “mystery” was Renoir himself[ii].

Despite his pain and deformity, Renoir did not lose his love for beauty or his need to express himself through art. Over the course of his life, he created more than 6,000 works of art, reflecting beauty, whether in landscapes, domestic scenes, or the human body.

Giving and Receiving Joy through Art

Like Renoir, I, too, find joy and healing through creative self-expression and art.

Shortly after my RA diagnosis, I found myself with an overwhelming desire to write, a desire I remember first surfacing while reading Little Women as a child. I had spent a lifetime wondering if I had what it took to make a living as a writer. My diagnosis gave me an opportunity to find out. Against all odds, my writing found its way to print; and now, fifteen years later, I make my living as a commercial and freelance writer and certified life coach.

But, it’s about so much more than making a living. For me, writing is a way of caring for the chronically ill, people in emotional pain, and others who are face spiritual, physical, or emotional limitations. Writing is a refuge, a place where I find joy and meaning in the midst of life’s ugliness and pain, a place where I can become fully absorbed in the beauty and rhythm of words and forget life’s pain. Through my writing, I both give and receive.

Such is the beauty of art. It nourishes not only the one who receives but also the one who gives.

Making Art — Now It’s Your Turn

Artistic expression in any form — whether it’s writing in a journal, taking an art class, or visiting a museum — refreshes body, soul, and spirit. The process of making and enjoying art creates a physiological response that increases levels of serotonin, the “feel good chemical,” in our brains. It distracts us from our pain and gives us tools for expressing difficult emotions, helps us find meaning in suffering, and reignites hope for the future.

The good news is you don’t have to be a professional artist to experience the benefits and healing power of creativity. Making art is easier than you think:

  • Take a class. What interests you? Take a neighborhood or online class that stretches you creatively. Follow your passion and explore writing, drawing, or pottery, expression your thoughts and feelings through art.
  • Make a visual journal. When thumbing through the pages of a magazine or newspaper, cut out articles, photos, or quotes that capture your attention. Paste them in your journal. Jot a quick note about why they captured your attention. Use these articles and images as a catalyst for prayer.
  • Create a legacy for your family by writing your life story. Writing your life story is a powerful healing tool and a way to share your story with the generations to come. Whether you decide to write your story in the pages of a journal or publish a book, memoir writing is easier now than ever. For tips on how to tell your story, visit the National Association of Memoir Writers online.
  • Cook a gourmet meal. Pick up a cooking magazine at the store and try a new recipe. Create the mood you want by paying special attention to lighting, presentation, and setting while you dine.
  • Capture the beauty of nature through photography. Pick up a camera and capture nature’s beauty while taking a walk or going for a drive. Delight your senses with the sights and sounds of God’s creation.
  • Making art will not cure your chronic pain and illness. You will continue to feel pain, struggle with discouragement, and wish you were healthy. But creativity can enhance you overall quality of life, increase your understanding of yourself, and help you realize your potential for growth and change, bringing you great joy in the process.