Most people start their morning with breakfast, continuously moving through the day, working and socializing. For some people, their day begins with distress and medications, victims of chronic pain. They push through their days, fighting and resisting as their pain mutates their lives. Pain strains every aspect of life, and for those with chronic pain, creation is an act of protest.

Pain is considered chronic if it is experienced for more than twelve months. Two professors of anesthesiology and pain management explained that chronic pain is “pain that extends beyond the expected period of healing.” Chronic pain usually originates in the body however, the initial cause greatly varies. Sometimes an injury instigates the pain, others begin from emotional trauma. Regardless, individuals with chronic pain do not have normal regulatory responses to physical stimuli. According to Statistics Canada and the CDC, approximately 1 in 10 North Americans experience debilitating chronic pain at some point in their life, with the majority being women.

Artists have the opportunity to use their work to express their experiences, a fact artists with chronic pain have taken to heart. Depending on the condition, pain is observed in various ways in different places. Since pain fluctuates with each sufferer, art allows a deeper understanding of the individual experience of pain.

Elizabeth Jameson

Elizabeth Jameson merges art with neuroscience, transforming her MRI scans into images that challenge preconceived notions of illness and disability. Her scans burst with mesmerizing colours and shapes as Jameson takes monochromatic images and revitalizes them with bright colours. She forges a new meaning of the brain, bringing attention to a commonly understood medical image. Her images bring emotion to the scientific. Jameson humanizes a symbol of what makes us human more so than the heart: the brain.

Jameson’s world altered in 1991 when she was diagnosed with secondary progressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS). MS affects the brain and spinal cord, as the body’s immune system attacks the nerve’s protective covering. Many people experience numbness and weakness in their limbs, shocking sensations, tremors, blurred vision, and fatigue. MS can result in the complete loss of walking. Unfortunately, MS does not have a cure, and various treatments only serve to reduce pain.

Prior to Jameson’s diagnosis, she represented incarcerated children as a public interest lawyer in the 1980s. She studied law at UC Berkeley in the 70s, hoping to make social change. She said, “I could make a difference, and that is what I wanted to do in my life.” In 1991, Jameson strolled through a park with her two sons when she lost her speech. After many tests, Jameson was diagnosed with MS, which disrupts the information transmitted from the brain to the body. Jameson commented on the experience, “I had so many MRIs. They were black, ugly, scary images I had refused to look at, but it was as if they were tattooed on my forehead.”

Reimagined Brain by Elizabeth Jameson. Image courtesy of Jameson's website.

Jameson’s art ignites “curiosity and conversation around what it means to live with an imperfect brain and body.” Her collections remain on permanent exhibition at the National Institutes of Health and universities including Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. Currently, Jameson collaborates among healthcare professionals and patients with her artwork, hoping to bridge the gap between those who treat and those who suffer.

Emma Jones

Emma Jones takes mundane images and reimagines their meaning. Jones explores chronic illness in her photography project The Nightstand Collective. People with chronic illnesses view their nightstands differently. They are a sanctuary of safety; full of helpful remedies. They are also a reminder of illness, full of non-negotiable medications. Jones sees this complexity and shares her and others’ experiences with chronic illness.

Years before Jones began her project, she was diagnosed with numerous chronic illnesses including endometriosis, asthma, autoimmune thyroiditis, depression, and anxiety. Her world shrank from a fulfilling life to a single room. Her interactions changed from people to pills. Jones’ nightstand navigated her symptoms, becoming a symbol for her new life.

The Nightstand Collective by Emma Jones. Image courtesy of Jones' website.

“When I first became sick, I took my symptoms to bed, imagining that I could treat them with rest…My world became my bedroom and the items on my bedroom nightstand. The things that I kept close were very carefully curated for specific purposes; some were medical, but most were possessions that I just enjoyed looking at, that brought me comfort. My nightstand was a way that I could strategize my energy use by keeping the things that I would need for a whole day close by,” Jones’ artist statement reads.

Curious about others’ experiences, Jones reached out to other people suffering from chronic illnesses. These individuals submitted photos of their nightstands along with information regarding their illness. Each picture represents an entire life. Many showcase medications and vitamins, but some reveal pieces of a person. Jones noted a theme of nature-related items, illuminating how many of these sufferers cannot venture outdoors. Viewers must question why each object exists, and how it affects the lives of those with chronic illnesses. Jones believes her journey is just beginning, “but I know that our illnesses have a story to tell. Our job is to listen.”

The Nightstand Collective by Emma Jones. Image courtesy of Jones' website.

Anna Cowley Ford

From a young age Anna Cowley Ford experienced frequent migraines. However, at the age of 19, Ford’s migraines worsened to the point that she had one daily. While attending Grinnell College for studio art, her support system rejected her accounts of pain. Three years later, Ford began depicting her pain through art, and the invisibility of her illness led Ford to showcase her pain to raise awareness and understanding.

Migrain Pathway by Anna Cowley Ford. Image courtesy of Ford's website.

Partnered with a Henna artist, Amanda Horner, who also experienced migraines, Ford tattooed the pathways of her pain. The spirals and swirls were precisely placed to accurately show where Ford experiences her chronic pain. Since migraines affect more than just the brain, Ford’s work covers the entire body. During a 2017 show, Ford had to remain still while Horner applied the Henna. Her illness and the stillness almost resulted in Ford collapsing. Ford believes that her art is worth the pain because it removes the barrier of invisibility.

Ford also uses other mediums to depict her struggle. She crafted ceramic busts of her own head, transforming each into a reflection of her pain. These pieces are graphic, violent, and intimate. They prompt the viewer to assess their own health and experiences with pain.

Migrain Pathway by Anna Cowley Ford. Image courtesy of Ford's website.

Ford uses her art to explore migraine pain, as it has affected her entire life. She says, “It’s partially a coping mechanism for me. It’s partially me trying to grapple with this, understand it. The second part is that there have been times I’ve been in dark places and talking to someone in a similar situation has had a profound effect invalidating my experience. If I can do that for anyone else, that would be amazing.”

Not only does her work reflect her pain, but also how chronic illnesses can fracture lives. Ford hopes her art expresses how pain involves guilt, loss, and impacts one’s mental health. The chronically ill feel guilty asking for help, and for feeling like a burden. They lose relationships and friendships because of isolation. Chronic pain is comorbid with many mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety. Ford’s work does not illustrate pain alone, but the ripple effects it creates.

Beau Bernier Frank

Beau Bernier Frank turned to art as a means of therapy after he was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis. After spending a year ignoring his chronic pain, Frank quit his job and became housebound in 2015. Unable to walk, Frank used art to express his struggle to find purpose during this dark time, creating a surrealist series called Off the Grid.

Frank’s oil paintings represent his love of travel. He fuses landscapes into portraits, constructing a strong juxtaposition between the model and what they long for. Similar to Frank’s experience, the models possess a disconnected gaze – as they desire the landscape painted upon them. For one reason or another, they cannot access it. The models are crafted in greyscale, while the scenery is vivid and lively. His images give life to landscapes and stagnancy to his models, reversing the predictable. The two features merge to form the model’s identity.

Ankylosing Spondylitis is a condition causing inflammation, resulting in the fusion of bones in the spine. It is an autoimmune disease with no cure, however, treatments can lessen pain. Symptoms include stiff joints, neck pain, fatigue, and vision issues. While there is no known cause of AS, there are genetic factors at play.

Since diagnosis, Frank finds, “these beautiful paintings have become a constant reminder to me to be brave in the face of adversity and to pursue worthwhile goals that make me feel alive. Since being properly diagnosed, I’m now taking the proper medications to suppress the negative symptoms and I’m on the path to recovery.” Frank’s series births wanderlust in the viewer, showcasing his stylistic simplicity, creative thinking, and the boundaries pain presents.

Annika Conner

In 2019, Annika Conner tragically fell during an ordinary ski trip. Knowing immediately something was wrong, she experienced multiple fractures and a sprained ankle. After her surgery, which included metal screws and a plate, Conner was left with chronic nerve pain in her leg. She said the pain from her fall “was so small in comparison to what happened about 10 days later when this insane nerve pain kicked in. My leg felt like someone was holding a blow torch to it and never let it go.”

Peripheral neuropathy, commonly known as nerve pain, is caused by damage to the nerve outside of the brain and spine. This pain comes from injuries, infections, exposure to toxins, and diabetes and feels like stabbing, burning, or tingling. Medications can lessen symptoms; however, it can be difficult to treat if the exact cause is unidentified.

I Hurt All the Time by Annika Conner. Image courtesy of Conner's website.

A year after Conner’s surgery, she still experiences nerve pain. Her doctors cannot discern if the pain originates from the injury, the surgery, scar tissue, or the implanted metals. She tried many medications, however, none of them lessened her hurt. As a contemporary romantic painter, Conner turned to art using symbols and creative imagery to portray her pain. She believed that her pain was meant to be painted and once painted, it would dissipate. While painting her experience did not dissolve her pain, her piece “I Hurt All the Time” led to vulnerable connections. She learned of others’ struggles with pain which made her pain more manageable, because she knew she was not alone.

“Painting through the pain was an obvious answer for me because I’m a painter,” Conner says, however, “it might be a little harder door for some people to open because they’re not comfortable in that space all the time.” Conner believes that the creative process will help with pain because it shifts focus to creation rather than loss. It doesn’t matter if one is an amateur, she finds that the process is essential to coping, not the result. While it won’t erase the pain, art softens the ache.

The Untitled Space by Annika Conner. Image courtesy of Conner's website.

Coping Creatively

In 2018, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. I had just graduated from university and published my first book. I was a twenty-two-year-old teaching assistant, exploding with ambitions. My diagnosis made me reassess my goals and gave my future a realistic filter.

I spent over a decade fighting pain without knowing what it was. I grew up dancing and singing, painting with my sister, and watching for symbols in the clouds. When my pain began as aches in my joints, I used art as my outlet. I did not realize then this was what I was doing, but art has always been a way for me to forgive my pain.

As an adult, fibromyalgia has completely changed how I create. The creative energy I possess can vanish in a moment. I am no longer able to decidedly create, I must plan ahead and cultivate energy. I do not paint as much as I used to, because when I have an idea, the energy is not there. Or when I have the energy, my creativity sways. When I’m able to paint, I feel fulfilled and my true form. Pain has taught me that art is about what the entire process means to you. Art motivates me to capture my pain in a form that transforms from the invisible to the understood.

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