The Art Of Illness

Since I’m currently in the midst of a Chronic Fatigue relapse, I thought I’d do a post about how to continue making art whilst managing an illness. I know it won’t apply to all of you but hopefully it will be useful to some.

Be Realistic
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that ALL artists have challenges in their life. Although it may seem incredibly unfair that you’re limited by your illness or disability, in reality ‘normal’ artists may be struggling just as much to make their art.

It’s easy to look at healthy people and feel jealous but try to remember that NO ONE has unlimited time, energy or money. Many artists need to work part or full time jobs to pay the bills, which drastically reduces the amount of time and energy available for art. Children or other family commitments can also be a serious limitation. Artists working on large, expensive projects may face endless frustrating delays while they scrabble around for funding. No one 'has it easy'.

Identify Strategies
Don’t make yourself more sick by carrying on doing something that is clearly too much. If you are finding it hard to walk or you’re in a lot of pain, then a very active practice that involves shimmying up and down ladders or hours of gruelling physical work may be impossible. Instead, tailor your practice to what you can do and find creative ways to continue to make art.

If you want to carry on making physically demanding things, then maybe you need someone to do a lot of the prep work for you. When Eva Hesse became ill with a brain tumour she employed assistants to make sculptures to her specifications. I employ The Wonderful Zoë two mornings a month to help me with things like admin, framing, organising and anything that involves heavy physical work.

You may need to change the scale on which you work or employ different materials or new techniques. When her almost constant migraines kept her bedbound for months and she could only paint for small stretches of time, Sarah Raphael divided her canvases up like strip cartoons and painted in tiny daily chunks. She also had to switch from oils to acrylics because the smell of the oils was a constant trigger.

When his eyesight started to fail due to cataracts, Monet loosened up his style and began working on his famous waterlily paintings.

I've found that having a small, manageable, daily practice like my current 'Objects For March' project or The Diary Project is helpful - 'little but often' apparently works well for me. I've also annexed an old spare laptop and I've written most of this in bed over the space of several days: right now it's making the difference between being able to blog and not.

Don’t Compare
It’s easy to feel jealous when your peers can accept exciting opportunities that are impossible for you but try not to compare yourself to others too much: it just leads to despair.

I’ve found that it’s more useful to look to people like Frida Kahlo for inspiration - she carried on painting despite being in shocking amounts of pain. Or I look at my college class and realise that even though I am not making art as fast as I want to, I'm still unusual in that I’m consistently making work and showing professionally.

Acknowledge Success
Give yourself props for what you ARE doing instead of mentally punishing yourself for what you’re not.

I have a terrible habit of berating myself for ‘not working’ when what I really mean is that I’m simply not doing as much in the studio as I'd like. I tend to discount anything that isn’t physical making as Not Art even though experience has shown that things like reading, writing, research, thinking, documentation and admin are all vital parts of my art practice.

If you're not strong enough to make art, take a break and if you're able, do something connected to your art instead. When I'm ill, I often use the time to catch up on my reading and documenting.

Allow Yourself To Stop
Art is a higher brain function and creating any sort of art takes a surprising amount of energy. Unfortunately when you are very ill, sometimes you have no choice but to put your art practice down completely for a little while. This can be difficult for artists since many of us are very driven by our art but it’s sometimes necessary. Concentrate on getting well and promise yourself that you’ll find a way to pick it up again as soon as you can. I tend to use my art as a 'canary down a mine' - when the thought of doing anything art-related makes me want to cry then I know I'm 'crashing' and need to recuperate. If I don't try to force things and make the relapse worse, then the art comes back on its own as my health comes back into balance.

Pace and Plan
Find your own rhythms and what works for you. I no longer apply for things that require me to make new work for a deadline because it’s too stressful and it never ends well. Instead I only apply for exhibitions with work that already exists. I don't apply for residencies either because I can't guarantee that I'll be well enough. It can be very frustrating but knowing and (mostly!) accepting my limitations allows me to make more art in the long run.

If you’re exhibiting, do as much as possible well ahead of time. Pace yourself and schedule some downtime for after the show. Ideally you'd schedule some days off beforehand as well but in my experience, that’s rarely possible. Often opportunities seem to come in clumps but try to space things whenever you can. Know your limits and your body and how long it takes you to recover from a show.

Find Support
Depending on your condition there may be specific grants and/or opportunities available. While you may not be comfortable with the 'disabled' tag, there's no harm in seeing what help may exist. Online forms and support groups for your specific condition can also provide valuable information and resources.

It’s also vital to support yourself by pacing, eating healthily and getting enough sleep, especially when you’re experiencing a relapse or if you know that you’re going to be under extra stress. Easier said than done, I know! Accept that you might have to let some things slide. While delicious fresh homecooked meals might be the ideal, remember that getting your vegetables in tinned soup or out of the freezer is better than no vegetables at all!

Finally, do whatever it takes to get yourself through a bad patch, even if that means the house isn't as clean as it could be, your email doesn't get answered promptly or you don't go to all the private views you'd like. Accept that to conserve energy for your art, you may have to let some other things go.

11 thoughts on “The Art Of Illness

  1. Thanks for sharing these strategies Kirsty. I'm going through a flare up at the moment, and it definitely helps to be gentle with yourself at these times. Frida is my hero! Hope you get through this patch soon.

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  2. Thanks for sharing these strategies Kirsty. I'm going through a flare up at the moment, and it definitely helps to be gentle with yourself at these times. Frida is my hero! Hope you get through this patch soon.

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  3. Hi Denise, I'm sorry to hear that you're having a flare up too. I seem to know a lot of people who're struggling at the moment - my massage therapist reckons that the change of seasons affect people.

    I hope you get better soon...

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  4. Post author

    Hi Denise, I'm sorry to hear that you're having a flare up too. I seem to know a lot of people who're struggling at the moment - my massage therapist reckons that the change of seasons affect people.

    I hope you get better soon...

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  6. I was already in awe of how much you achieve, quite blew me over that you have health issues.
    Well done you !
    def agree one to has to make best of situation, make practical adjustments. I have mini studio in the bedroom, handy for mini bursts of work, but no smelly oil paints !
    I'm interested to see how online networking changes opportunities for disabled artists, hopefully art will be more inclusive.
    Whilst I'm not keen on misery art, as art therapy which perpetuates the myth of tortured soul of artist, I've found there's no getting away from my disability experience in daily life and thus per se it effects my work.
    I am working a project documenting local pavement access issues, which I am using as campaign tool:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/katyarobin/collections/72157623201526363/
    I am hoping to bring short term art installation and participation into the project, and maybe even a permanent art work.

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  7. I was already in awe of how much you achieve, quite blew me over that you have health issues.
    Well done you !
    def agree one to has to make best of situation, make practical adjustments. I have mini studio in the bedroom, handy for mini bursts of work, but no smelly oil paints !
    I'm interested to see how online networking changes opportunities for disabled artists, hopefully art will be more inclusive.
    Whilst I'm not keen on misery art, as art therapy which perpetuates the myth of tortured soul of artist, I've found there's no getting away from my disability experience in daily life and thus per se it effects my work.
    I am working a project documenting local pavement access issues, which I am using as campaign tool:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/katyarobin/collections/72157623201526363/
    I am hoping to bring short term art installation and participation into the project, and maybe even a permanent art work.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  8. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I have some chronic issues too and get very frustrated sometimes. I think for me it is the unpredictability of an illness attack that can be the most disrupting to my life. I can seem just fine some days, and feel that myself, as well as others, want to expect much out of me. Then then all of a sudden, and fairly frequently, it strikes again and I can't do much, and I can't really go anywhere for others to interact with me and see my how my illnesses are hobbling me. The next time I am out an about I am doing OK again, and it is a mystery to most as to why I did not show up to the scheduled event, or accomplish much of anything in between.
    A few people know I have these very bad days and are accepting, and I value that very much. But I don't feel like explaining it to everyone all the time. Some people would just see it as "excuse making" and not want to hear it. The problem with chronic anything is that it either stays with you, or keeps coming back again and again.
    I liked how you talked about how by accepting this illness as a fact helps you work around it it create a productive life.
    Blessings

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  9. Thanks for commenting, Cathie. I find the unpredictable nature of my illness the hardest thing to deal with too. I can be fine one day and hopeless the next & yes, it makes planning almost impossible.

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