Some artists dealt with their own health challenges through art. The process of creating art, as well as the finished piece, helped make sense of their physical, mental or emotional needs. Healing is also possible for those who experience the art through observation and contemplation of the message. It shows us that we are not alone in our challenges.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is one of the most famous artists who struggled with mental illness. In December 1888, after an emotional disagreement with painter Paul Gauguin, he cut off his right ear. His bouts of insanity did not prevent him from creating the highly expressive artistic language shown in paintings such as The Starry Night (1889).
Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), impressionistic painter, suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis during the final decades of his life. By 1910, he was wheelchair bound and unable to hold a paintbrush. Using his art as a coping mechanism, he had the paintbrush tied to his wrist.
Henry Matisse (1869 – 1954) was one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century but in the last years of his life he created a new style of art in paper cutouts. Bedridden after a serious operation in 1941, Matisse began to develop his cutout technique, when a scissors was an easier tool than a paintbrush. He wrote to a friend that his work before his illness and operation “always had the feeling of too much effort.” His work afterwards, helped him feel free and detached.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) suffered from childhood polio. Later, in 1925, she was in a traffic accident that left her in pain for the remainder of her life. Her famous series of self-portraits enabled her to objectify her physical sufferings, as well as the emotional turmoil resulting from her turbulent marriage to painter Diego Rivera.
Keith Haring (1958 – 1990) had already achieved global success with his personal caricatures before he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. He continued to use his art to raise awareness of AIDS and other social issues. In an interview in 1988, he said, “Part of the reason I am not having trouble facing the reality of death is that it’s not a limitation, in any way. It could have happened at any time, and it is going to happen sometime. If you live your life according to that, death is irrelevant. Everything I am doing right now is exactly what I want to do.”
Healing Through The Arts Tips
“Play” with art whether active or passive. As adults we often use the word “play” exclusively with sports. Try using it with art. It may help you expand your view of recreation. Whether you actively engage in art by creating pieces or passively by visiting museums or watching performances, the benefits are endless. After cancer, I used art to get me out of the house, meet new people, and have fun at different art venues. I also took classes and attended lectures to learn new things.
Museums are a great way to continually be inspired by visual art. They expand your world by showing collections of art and artifacts that you would not be able to see unless you traveled extensively. The art also connects you to other places and other times through the visual experience. By seeing works of art throughout time, you can appreciate the talent, the art form, the method of expression, as well as the affect of color on mood or emotion.
In addition to permanent collections, many museums have traveling exhibits so you can return and continue to be inspired by new and different art. They often have events so you can meet the artists, attend lectures and learn more about the exhibits.
A membership to museums and theatre arts organizations is great way to have the information come to you about what is going on in your community. If you join a museum, even at a low cost, you will be notified of the changing exhibits or events.
For Children, many museums have a place where they can touch, play and do things related to art or an exhibit in the museum. With children, when possible, make shorter visits more often. You can return to see different things and don’t need to see everything every time. Pick and choose what is best for each day.
When traveling in Italy with my elementary school age children, I wanted to see more museums than they had the patience to visit. I saved the best museum for last but on that day, they said “enough” and refused to go. I found a book on the most interesting pieces of art for children at that famous museum. We had a scavenger hunt to find those pieces in the museum and it was one of our best museum experiences.
Learning something new at workshops or art classes is a more active interaction with art. When I was healing, I challenged myself to learn how to do something I had never done before. The process exposed me to new ideas and people, which I found very helpful to healing. I took a class to make beads from hot glass. I did not become an expert at making glass beads. In fact, mine were not even ones that had the possibility of becoming jewelry, but I had a great time. I found that the glass was the master; I could not control it as I thought I could. Success came from patience and figuring out how to work with the glass. Ironically, those were key lessons I had to learn in my life and in my healing.
Color can have a significant affect on moods. I found that during my healing, my home needed to be a peaceful place. My bedroom had soothing colors and pleasing things to look at including art and photographs. My comfy chair was in a quiet place for reading, and not just watching TV. My flower garden was visible when I looked out the window. Much of this environment was created before I got sick. But I appreciated it so much more when I was housebound and recovering.
Cameron, Julia The Complete Artist’s Way: Creativity As A Spiritual Practice (Tarcher/Penquin, 1992)
Cliff, Stafford The Way We Live With Color (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 2008)
Elder, John The Cut-Outs of Henri Matisse (George Braziller, Inc., 1978)
Gage, John Color And Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (University of California Press, 1993)
Gage, John Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism (University of California Press, 1999)
Gibson, Clare The Hidden Life of Art (Barnes and Noble, Inc., 2006)
Mella, Dorothee L. The Language of Color (Warner Books, 1988)
Pastoureau, Michel Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton University Press, 2001)
Walt, Irene and Serra, Grace, ed. The Healing Work of Art: From the Collection of Detroit Receiving Hospital (Detroit Receiving Hospital, 2007)
Books For Children
Museum book shops often have great books for children and adults
Baldini, Maria S. De Salvia Playing With Art: Florence (Mandragora, 1995)
Kohl, MaryAnn F., and Solga, Kim Discovering Great Artists: Hands-On-Art for Children in the Styles of the Great Masters (Bright Ring Publishing, Inc. 1996)
Metropolitan Museum of Art New York 123 (Little, Brown and Company, 2004)
Metropolitan Museum of Art New York ABC (Little, Brown and Company, 2002)
Metropolitan Museum of Art New York Shapes (Little, Brown and Company, 2005)
Metropolitan Museum of Art New York Can You Find It (Harry N. Abrams, 2002)
Metropolitan Museum of Art New York Can You Find It Too (Harry N. Abrams, 2004)
Nilsen, Anna The Great Art Scandal: Solve The Crime, Save The Show (Kingfisher 2003)
Paint and Painting: The Colors, the Techniques, the Surfaces: A History of Artists Tools (Scholastic 1993)
Provensen, A&M Leonardo DaVinci (Viking Press, 1984)
Osofsky, Randy Come Look With Me: Art in Early America (Lickle Publishing, 2002)
O’Reilly, Wenda The Renaissance Art Game (Birdcage Books, 2000)
Salomon, Stephanie Come Look With Me (Lickle Publishing, 2002)
Vincent van Gogh Vincent’s Colors (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005)
Welton, Jude Impressionism: Discover Who the Impressionists Were and the Influences That Shaped Their Work. Eyewitness Books (DK Dorling Kindersley, 1993)
Wright, Jessica Noelani Come Look With Me: Exploring Modern Art (Lickle Publishing, 2002)