Creative inspiration: Art therapy helps with coping, encourages healing

Lupus Foundation of America

Resource Content

The portrait features a black silhouette of a woman, accented with a trail of roses down the length of her body. At her center is a skull, with just the hint of a female face etched into its side. The darkness of the form and the macabre image of the skull might appear to represent death, yet the painter’s intention was quite the opposite. “It means life,” says 53-year-old California artist Valerie Medina. “It represents the beautiful nature of a beautiful body, and then the roses and thorns are the illness.”

Lupus is the illness Medina is referring to, and it began coloring her life when she was diagnosed in 1986. The face inside the skull is a self-portrait that “reminds me not to lose myself in the illness,” she says. “I’m still here.”

Medina has been painting since childhood, but she has used her creativity as an outlet to help cope with her disease for the last decade. “My paintings help me understand that when I’m in pain, it will probably pass soon,” she says. “Looking at those paintings, I think, ‘This was a bad day, but tomorrow will be better. Today may be a thorn, but tomorrow may be a rose.’ ”

Art is a powerful way to express—and gain control of—the many emotions a chronic illness such as lupus can provoke. An entire mental health practice is devoted to helping people cope with the stress of disease through creativity. It’s called art therapy.

In an art therapy program, a trained therapist facilitates the creative process. Through artistic projects, the therapist helps students improve their self-awareness, build self-esteem, and release some of the troubling emotions they’ve felt as a result of their illnesses.

“The therapist offers a safe space for the expression of feelings, such as grief or anxiety, that might be difficult to verbalize or even to become aware of,” says Frances Reynolds, Ph.D., an occupational therapy lecturer at Brunel University in London, England. “Some people suggest that art offers a ‘container’ into which feelings can be put and rendered safe.”

How art therapy helps

Reynolds and her colleagues have studied the recreational use of arts and crafts in women with chronic illnesses, and they’ve discovered that the practice can be constructive in a number of ways. “We have found participants describing a diverse range of benefits, including the experience of challenge and joy, a sense of control, renewed identity, and in some cases, new social relationships based on shared creative interests,” she says.

“Art therapy provides a chance to explore their identity independent of the disease—the parts of them that are still full of strength,” says Sunny Jeanne Givens, an adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s art therapy program.

When chronic disease picks away at the core of a person’s identity, art therapy can help restore it. Lupus forced Lizbeth Ordonez Portillo to give up her favorite sport—soccer—because she couldn’t tolerate being outside in the sun. “When the doctor told me that I was sick, it was really hard. I stopped doing the things that I like, and from that moment, my life was different,” says the 13-year-old, who lives in Juarez, Mexico. Drawing portraits and landscapes has given Portillo a renewed sense of self and accomplishment. “Even when I am mad when things happen to me, I’ve learned to be strong and pass all the obstacles that life gave me,” she says.

Art can also provide a virtual escape from the fatigue and pain that keep people with lupus away from work and other activities. “Some participants have described their artwork as helping them to move beyond the confines of their home,” Reynolds says.

“They can journey to other places in their minds as they paint or embroider scenes that give pleasure or that bring back positive memories.”

Finding a creative outlet

There’s no one “recipe” for art therapy, Givens says. Any type of creative outlet—painting, sculpture, photography, acting, or dance—can be therapeutic, provided the artist is able to find a sense of healing and release in the practice. In her art therapy program, Givens brings to class a large bag filled with a variety of art supplies. Then, she lets students choose which art form—drawing, painting, ceramics, or jewelry making—appeals most to them.

But you don’t necessarily have to take part in a formal art therapy program to reap the benefits. Any type of artistic expression can be healing. For Sami Casten, 13, acting is an escape from the stresses of her illness. “When you’re acting, you play a character,” says the middle-school student, who lives in the Chicago suburbs. “When I’m ­acting, I don’t have to worry about my lupus for a while.”

Being part of Kidz Kabaret, a children’s community theater program in Naperville, Ill., also brings a sense of normalcy back into her life—something she hasn’t had since she was diagnosed about a year ago. “I like being up on the stage because it makes me feel like I’m normal. Lots of people don’t know what lupus is, and when they find out, they might treat me differently because of that. When I’m up on stage, nobody treats me any differently,” she says.

Graden Golston-Kreyche finds his release from lupus through photography. The 18-year-old high school senior from Santa Cruz, Calif., took up the hobby only recently, but he’s already won several awards for his work. To him, photography is not only a method of self-expression, but also a way to prove that his disease doesn’t define or control him. “I think it’s really important when you have lupus, or any disease or condition, to keep doing things that you really love doing. I really love doing photography,” he says.

Those interested in pursuing the arts should remember that you don’t have to be the next Rembrandt or Mariah Carey to express yourself. “It makes no difference if you’ve got talent or not. You don’t have to share it with the world,” Medina says. Art can be your own personal outlet to release all the emotions you’re feeling.

Whether you do it for a self-esteem boost or an emotional release, art can help you move beyond your condition. “When you have a chronic illness, sometimes it becomes an overall focus of everything you do, every waking moment,” Medina says.

“In a way, chronic illness takes away your control. And I think being creative gives you back that control.”

Find your outlet

Art therapy programs are offered in many different settings, including hospitals, clinics, schools, and local community centers. To find a program in your area, visit the website of the American Art Therapy Association.

Here are some tips for finding an art therapy program, or embarking on your own solo project.

  • Consider your capabilities. Choose an art therapy program that suits your abilities and needs. For example, if you get exhausted when you do any one activity for a long period of time, work on smaller projects that are a better fit for your energy level. If you’re looking to gain more control over your condition, you might prefer a larger project, which “challenges the constraints of your illness and helps you feel that you are mastering its effects,” says Frances Reynolds, Ph.D., an occupational therapy lecturer at Brunel University in London, England.
  • Choose an ideal environment. Consider whether you prefer to work in a group, one-on-one with an instructor, or alone. Some people feel most comfortable expressing themselves artistically at home, with no one watching. “Group participation suits people who wish to establish relationships based on mutual creative interests,” Reynolds says. Participating in a group art class also can prevent you from feeling lonely and isolated.
  • Keep an open mind. When embarking on an art therapy program, “trust the process,” suggests Sunny Jeanne Givens, an adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s art therapy program. Go into the class with the willingness and openness to be an active participant. Part of trusting the process involves building a good rapport with your therapist.
  • Don’t give up. Even if you don’t see results right away, stick with the program. It can take time to get comfortable, especially if art is new to you.