Turning Pain Into Art

“We have art in order not to die of the truth.” -Nietzsche

I’m one of those people who thinks art is a necessity, not a luxury. When I went through the obligatory Hermann Hesse/Kahil Gibran phase in high school, I couldn’t get enough of that Persian poem about how if two loaves alone to thee are left, sell one and with the dole buy hyacinths to feed thy soul. While that particular passage is a bit flowery for me now, I still love what it represents.

We count on art to make sense of what defies logic and to say what cannot be said. I The one thing that came as close to explaining the horror as of 9/11 as anything could was Deborah Garrison’s poem “I Saw You Walking.” (If you click the link, it’s the third poem down.) I don’t remember any details of the 24/7 news from that time, but that poem is lodged in my brain.

Lately the thought of pain as muse has been rattling around in my head. I can’t stop thinking about a wonderful Paris Review article I read a couple of months ago. (I don’t want to sound more cultured than I actually am; I found it courtesy of the Zite magazine app on my iPad.) It’s called “Frida’s Corsets,” and it’s about how Mexican artist Frida Kahlo created art from the corsets she had to wear to support her ruined spine after a streetcar accident. It’s a stunning story.

I was somewhat familiar with Frida Kahlo’s art and her chronic pain, but had no idea they were so intimately twined until reading this article. In that pre-cloud era, I wonder how many people outside of her circle of friends and fellow artists even knew what she was doing. And I wonder how she’d be using social media if she were here now.

Today we have artists like Regina Holliday, who has turned her own loss into art focused on patient rights and advocacy, including her Walking Gallery of wearable art. We have photographers like David Jay, who created The Scar Project, an amazing photography gallery and book of young women with breast cancer.

We have journals of literature and healing like the incomparable Bellevue Literary Review,which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. (Doctor/poet Rafael Campo’s essay on “Illness as Muse” in the 10th anniversary issue is a must read. Trust me on that.) We have newly minted ezines like Narrative Nipple, which focuses on breast cancer.

I admire artists of all kinds. But there’s a special place in my heart for the ones who can tap into personal or collective pain and open a window to what’s not easily understood or explained. I would argue that we need them every bit as much as we need patient advocates. Turning pain into art is the essence of empowerment.


11 thoughts on “Turning Pain Into Art

  1. Jackie,
    Terrific posting! I read “Illness as Muse” just now, and you are right about it being a must-read. I agree that art is so necessary, all the arts, and that art helps us try to make sense of the pain or at least cope with the pain of an illness. I’ve done some paintings trying to reflect the breast cancer experience, and I think that is the reason so many people afflicted with illnesses blog, journal, etc.

    Thank you for sharing such an excellent piece of art in its own right!

  2. Hey,
    I wrote that Paris Review piece on Frida Kahlo’s corsets and just wanted to say it’s so beautiful to find it mentioned here; to know that somehow we’re all part of this larger conversation about pain and art, and we’re having it with strangers we’ve never even met. It’s a wonderful thing; looks like we share so many zones of musing in common. I wish you all the best as you figure out your way through pain, and art, and their intersection.
    Leslie Jamison

  3. Wow. I just came back from my doctors appointment. This one dealt only with pain. Not life/death stuff today (gratefully)… and I was SO apologetic – I felt like I was WASTING his time. But upon reading this… I realize that pain and how we deal with it, what we make of it, and how we treat ourselves and others thru it MATTERS. It does.

    I have always known this. But somehow I forget when it is “only” about ME. Thank you for this.


    • Melissa,
      Thank YOU for tweeting that great Nietzsche quote yesterday! It so fit with what I was thinking about. I love it when the “tweetgeist” works.

      And–wagging my finger in your face—NEVER think you’re wasting a doctor’s time. I’m sure he didn’t feel that way. And think about it—Without us, there would be no doctors.

      BIG XOX back!!!!!!

  4. Jackie,
    I’m another one who views art of all kinds as a necessity, not a luxury. That’s why it truly pains me to see the arts so often being eliminated when cuts to education are being made.

    At my last bc support group meeting I noticed the topic for January 2012 is art therapy for healing during bc. I thought, wow, don’t want to miss that one! I was pretty impressed it was going
    to be an actual topic of discussion for our group.

    Turning pain into art is the essence of empowerment. I could not agree more.

    • Nancy,
      I’m so glad you brought up cuts to education in the arts. I keep forgetting that you are a teacher. That is SO WRONG. I took a writing class for teachers quite by accident but I used some tricks with my mental health clients in my former life. I’ve been thinking of hauling out my autobiopoem and inviting people to play—if I can find it! Another thing that was floating around my head is how we used to get culture on TV–I remember watching Leonard Bernstein when I was a kid–and plays—-and what do kids get now? Jersey Shore? No thanks!!! I’m glad your group is going to talk about art therapy for healing. I hope you blog about it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Jackie,

    As an artist, just wanted to express my delight and gratitude for this post. I could no more not make art than I could give up breathing. Did you ever see the movie ‘Frida’ that Selma Hayak made with Julie Taymor? It’s absolutely brilliant. I finally saw it about 5 years ago, the night before the opening of an art show featuring my work along with that of two of my friends. It was the best and most empowering thing I could have done that night. I recommend getting the DVD with the extras, that includes some incredible interviews touching on just this subject. I’m definitely going to look for that Paris Review article.

    Making art, music, writing, anything creative, keeps us sane.


  6. Jackie, great thinking here. It seems to me a world without breast cancer would have much fewer bloggers. Isn’t it the pain that drives us all to write? I think there’s art in that. Thanks for this post. It’s given me alot to think about.

  7. Wonderful post Jackie, and so refreshing and at the same time affirming. I also find that creative outlets have been increasingly important to me. An important element of this is as a way of processing all the bleurgh, but also I have found that having cancer has reminded me that if I want to develop my creative skills then I should dedicate time and energy and balance out the other, elements of life.

    During chemo I used to get myself a “treat” after each chemo, and focused on getting something motivational (and to a certain extent inspirational), including art materials and music.

    My focus now is on dedicating “creative” time in my week in many forms, writing, painting and photography.

    Thanks for such a great post
    Philippa 🙂

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