Art Therapy for Chronic Illness Interview with Karen Fitch

I’m so pleased to be able to introduce this new series on My Several Worlds. Some of my long-term readers will remember that I used to do a series of interviews called MSW Interviews and Global Artists many years ago. Today I’m introducing a new art series: Art Therapy for Chronic Illness or Art for Arthritis.

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. Pablo Picasso Click To Tweet

The purpose of this series is to express how we use art to express our feelings about being chronically ill. Art can be used in so many different ways. It allows us to show our pain, our emotions, it can be used as a daily visual journal of our day to day life; the possibilities are endless.

Art therapy – or as I like to tag it in my Instagram feed – ‘art for arthritis‘ or ‘art for chronic illness‘, is a secondary health approach that combines artwork and creativity by patients. It helps patients to cope with the enormity of what is happening to them, allows them to express their emotions or pain, and helps patients by distracting them from pain, which allows them to cope with their daily challenges with chronic illness.

I’d like to introduce our first artist to you, my very good friend and AS buddy from halfway around the world in Morgan Hill, California, my artist soul sister, the one and only Karen Fitch, Team Captain of Fitch Feet for Walk Your AS Off!

Art Therapy for Chronic Illness Interview with Karen Fitch

MSW: Hi Karen. I’m so happy to be featuring you as our very first artist for our Art for Chronic Illness and Art for Arthritis series. I know you’re an amazing artist, but my readers don’t know anything about you. Can you tell us a little about yourself? When did you first become interested in art?

KSF: My name is Karen and I am an artist. I am also a wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, community volunteer, Spoonie, A.S. warrior and a poet/writer. I have many facets and interests, so limiting my focus to just “art” is often a challenge…but I like a challenge. I do not recall a time when I was not and artist or at least a creative maker.

I was raised in a family that provided much room for creativity. I was allotted much time with materials and media; crayons, pens, papers of every style, paint, markers, scissors, and paste. I was able to get my hands on stuff and turn that stuff into art. I owe a huge part of my creativity to both of my parents, who were often impressed when I crafted a traditional piece of art (say a painting or sketch) or when I manufactured a diorama from a shoebox and modeling clay.

I spend hours in my room tearing pictures and words from magazines and collaging worlds that I wanted to walk into. I painted the backs of my chest of drawers and inside of my closet. I spent hours with my Great Aunt Violet, learning the art of beading and jewelry making from her.

MSW: You seem to be a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to art. You do a lot of art, Karen! I love looking at all your creations and updates on Facebook. Could you tell us a little about the projects you’re working on at the moment?

KSF: Presently, I am home-schooling my 6th grade son, so art is part of our curriculum nearly every day. I am very lucky that the creative gene passed to him. We are an artsy family.

Finishing up a unit on Ancient Greece means that painting an amphora vase will soon be on the agenda. As for my art, I am working on creating some jewelry, necklaces primarily, for an upcoming pop-up shop at a local venue. I have my hands in lots of beads right now. I am a glass bead junky. I love the feel of beads and I so enjoy finding unique combination and designs. I have been playing with watercolors quite a bit lately. I was taught watercolors in a very traditional manner as a child and now I really enjoy using that medium in a more abstract manner.

What can I say? I am always drawing, sketching and creating.

I carry a journal with me at all times (Strathmore Visual Journal Spiral Bound 5.5″X8″-140# Watercolor) and a set of pens. I love my Paper Mate Flair Felt Tip Pens (Medium Point—0.7mm.)

They are great for all types of drawing and they flow well on all types of paper. I really like this journal because it has 22 pages (44 sides/surfaces) and I always feel such a sense of accomplishment when I fill an entire book with art.

Art for Arthritis

MSW: You recently went to an art convention that you invited me to. I was so sad I couldn’t attend, but I was able to live vicariously through your eyes and through the art you posted while you were there. What was Craftcation like and why did you go?

KSF: Craftcation is one of the most incredible things that I have ever had the opportunity to be a part of. Craftcation is an annual crafting/creative/maker/business conference that is held in Ventura, California.

t is hosted by an organization called “Dear Handmade Life” and they do an incredible job gathering instructors, facilitators and folks that have had success in turning their creative energies or products into an actual business or beyond. It is five days of hands-on workshops, lectures, social activities, dinners, laughs, and communing with other creatives.

I signed up for 13 workshops this last time and I loved each one. I was able to take classes that allowed me to get my hands on fimo dough (polymer clay,) weaving, metal stamping, sewing…so many things. I love all of the hands-on workshops.

In these classes, I get to try new or familiar crafts and projects. But you should know that the hands-on classes are just one part of the convention. There are business classes for people who are just starting their creative businesses of people who are already on their way. There are classes on how to write a bio, build a website, use social media, and so much more.

This year there was a guest speaker named Krista Suh. Krista was one of the founders of the “Pussy Hat Project” and author of “DIY Rules for a WTF World: How to Speak Up, Get Creative, and Change the World.” I love her book and she was such a dynamo.

Art for Arthritis

MSW: How do you use your art to help with chronic illness?

KSF: I believe that art can be therapy. Sometimes it is difficult to explain in words how I feel, because it never ends. I have a chronic illness with moments of acute symptoms. Art makes me happy.

Sometimes I draw or paint my disease as a form and then I rip it up or paint over the canvas with something that brings me joy. In some symbolic manner I like to think that I have some control of what my immune system is up to. Of course it is a fallacy, but it makes me happy to think in that manner.

There have been times when all I could really do is care for my basic needs and draw a picture. If I can make one piece of art despite a flare, than I can accomplish something. Walk Your AS Off Karen Swank Fitch

I captain a team for Walk Your A.S. Off and I use my art to motivate my team members. I note their weekly step-count reports with graphics that use my art. They really seem to like their “badges” and appreciate my personal way of cheering them on.

MSW: Do you ever create art that describes your pain or your emotional or physical state of being? Would you mind sharing some images with us?

KSF: I do. I have several pieces that have a certain tone to them. Those pieces are more abstract than some of my other pieces. I truly believe that having a growth-mindset helps me deal with my disease.

Often I craft something that shows where I am in the moment and then I turn to the next page and draw something that feels lighter and more accepting of my disease, rather than angry or defeated (trust me, I have those moments!)

Three pieces that I crafted in mid-flare are titled, “The Hole,” “Facets” and “Shine.” For “Hole,” I imagined the slippery slope that I often feel that I am on. It can feel like I am trying to crawl up one of those tube slides at neighborhood parks. I get a finger hold and then slip. “Facets” is an abstract piece that features my interpretation of my own facet joints of my spine.

I am a word-gal. I love to script an inspirational word into my sketches and art. Sometimes the word may be hidden under paints or colors, but for this piece, I wanted to remind myself to SHINE-ON no matter what comes.

MSW: How do you think art could be used for treatment in chronic illness? What benefits could art have to a patient? Do you think art could help health practitioners understand their patients better?

KSF: I whole-heartedly believe that art is therapy and it is a powerful tool in physical, emotional and mental healing. Being able to capture how one feels and how one feels about an illness is an incredible opportunity to connect with one’s inner artist (& child-like spirit) and with others who are experiencing chronic illness.

I facilitate a workshop based on Julia Cameron’s, “The Artist Way.” Over the 12 weeks of this class, participants are encouraged to get in touch with their true creative and artist nature. Many people have emotional blocks when it comes to making art. Many folks with chronic, disabling illness can get emotionally blocked…it is often just too much to deal with.

I encourage my students to reach deep, reach into their childhood, when scripts were created and when we learned how to be how what our family expected. By making art, by allowing oneself the freedom to create and enjoy the process of being creative, one can tap into energy that can be very healing, and often cleansing.

Ridding ourselves of emotional baggage creates space for living in the here and now.

MSW: How have your experiences chronic illness affected you on a personal level?

KSF: My entire life has changed. I just turned 50 and I can’t count on my body in the same way that a “typical” 50 year old might. I have to adapt.

Luckily, I appreciate the ability to adapt and I actually have relied upon my professional training to learn how to adapt. When I was first employed at the school system, I worked in the Adapted Physical Education Department. My job was to work with physically handicapped children and adapt P.E. activities to their needs and abilities.

I learned early that where there is a will, there is a way. I was so impressed with these first students of mine. They were kids and they wanted to play. They wanted to engage and they wanted to have fun.

They didn’t want to be known for what they couldn’t do, they wanted to be involved and out from the shadows. I try to remember to have fun. I try to remember to engage. I try to adapt to this part of my life, the post diagnosis part.

I used to say “yes” to everything. I sat on tons of committees and I ran a mother’s group in my town. I volunteered at my son’s school and I tutored children in reading.

Then, the world that I knew shifted. I was riddled with complications and symptoms that didn’t seem to connect. I was sick, very sick. I was in pain and my immune system was betraying me. Through luck and a very dedicated primary care physician, I found my way to a diagnosis of Ankylosing Spondylitis and Fibromyalgia.

There were tests and x-rays and a series of rheumatologists. There were sessions with a team from the long term chronic care department. There was even an appointment on a dreary day with a psychiatrist. I learned how to adapt. I learned how to pronounce anky-los-ing spondyli-tis.

I learned about spoons and I reached out to others who have this disease. I joined Facebook groups and I put one foot in front of the other and I continue to walk through this life of mine.

Art for Arthritis

MSW: What kind of art supplies do you need on hand all the time?

KSF: I prefer watercolor paper, even if I am not using watercolor paints. I like to feel the tooth of the paper that I use. (A paper’s tooth describes the surface feel of paper—the more tooth a paper has, the rougher it feels.)

I love my Copic Markers. They have dual tips, one is chiseled and the other brush. These markers are alcohol-based and can be manipulated with 91% isopropyl rubbing alcohol.

I love the rainbow of colors that I have collected in the form of felt tip pens, Paper Mate Flair are my favorite. (These are water based and can be manipulated with water!) I always have my Sakura pens with me. They are great for fine black lines and of course, Zentangle.

MSW: What is your favorite art medium? Which colors do you like to work with the most?

KSF: Jewel tones…but I don’t discriminate. I truly love colors. I was once reading a book in a sixth grade class and we got on the topic of one’s personal style.

I told the kids that I didn’t think that I actually had a style (mom jeans/tshirt/pony tail) and one of the young ladies countered, “Mrs. Fitch, you do have a style, it is called ‘colorful.’” I own it.

I must say that vivid colors appeal to me; I am not a great fan of pastels. They have their place, but I go for rich hues. I like to draw and sketch and make jewelry. I keep a little box in my family room with beads and projects that I am working on. I can whip up a necklace in minutes.

MSW: What kind of tips would you offer to readers who are interested in starting art as a therapy treatment to chronic illness?

KSF: Find a form or medium that speaks to you. Please remember that the outcome is not the focus. Making art, like when you were a child, is freeing and it opens one to new ideas. Surround yourself with people that support you. Some folks look at art as a waste of time, money or energy. If someone in your life derides your creativity, it is their issue not yours.

Artists need to make art. I often remind my family that, “I was created to create.” If you need to be in a group, take a look in your community to see who hosts classes or workshops or casual get-togethers.

If you are a blocked artist, check out Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way.” You can do the book solo, but if you can find a workshop or facilitator, try to. (I will be launching an on-line version of my 12 week AW workshop in early 2019 via the video-conferencing platform Zoom.) Plus, try Zentangle. It is a meditative drawing format that nearly anyone can do.

My 11 year old son can do it. My very left-brained engineer husband can do it. There are Certified Zentangle Teachers all over the world.

MSW: Do you have a favorite piece of artwork that you are exceptionally proud of?

KSF: Last summer challenged myself to “100 Days of Summer/100 Days of Art.” I created one piece of art each day of the summer. It coincided well with my son’s “Summer To Do” list.

I ended up chronicling some of our adventures last summer. On June 23, the 17th anniversary of my first date with my husband, I created a piece called, “3 of Us.”

I thought of how my little family of three is linked, how we cross over, hold each other up and intercede all while still remaining whole individuals. Plus, it was selected as one of the pieces of art for the 2018 Walk Your AS Off Fundraising Calendar (Month of May.)

MSW: What advice would you give to aspiring new artists who are looking for something new to do to help them cope with chronic illness?

KSF: Just do it. Simple pick up the pen and put it to paper. If you are a person that created in the three dimensional, grab some Play-doh.

  • Make stuff.
  • Look at art.
  • Read things that inspire you.
  • Find a tribe.
  • Find encouragement.
  • Take classes.
  • Try something new.
  • Take a nice, slow walk around your local arts and craft store.
  • Talk to people that you know as creatives.
  • Most people are willing to show and share their knowledge.

MSW: Thank you so much for being our first featured artist for our art for chronic illness series, Karen. You are an amazing person and I love everything you do. SHINE ON, KAREN! I can’t wait to see your next creation! 

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