Art Therapy for Arthritis – Interview with Professional Artist Jennifer Walker

This week on MSW Interviews:

Today I’d like to introduce you to a very special artist who has amazed me with her incredibly descriptive artwork and her ability to write. Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to professional artist Jennifer Walker, author of Unexpected Advocate.

Jennifer suffers from a number of chronic illnesses, because as I’ve mentioned in the past, most patients who are chronically ill deal with several diseases and co-morbidities. In Jennifer’s case, she has Rheumatoid Arthritis, Spinal osteoarthritis, Fibromyalgia, neuropathy and SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder).

This is how she uses her impressive art skills to cope with life with chronic illness and pain. Her artwork really hits home for me and speaks volumes about her experiences. I hope you enjoy her interview. Please do leave a comment or a word of support for Jennifer and don’t forget to drop by her blog and say hi!


Thank you so much for joining us today, Jennifer. I am so glad you reached out to me on Twitter for my call out for chronic illness bloggers. I was blown away by your site and by your artwork. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’m really anxious to get this interview underway.

MSW: Can you tell us a little about yourself? When did you first become interested in art?

Well, I was interested as a child in comics and characters from cartoons. I wanted to create characters like Donald Duck or Goofy from Disney. But it was only for a brief period of time. My younger sister, who won awards, and my older brother drew all the time. I considered them talented artists and never myself.

My true passion for art began in my early 20’s. I was working a telemarketer job where I called clients and worked through surveys. I began sketching people in my college classes and coloring roses during work from copied coloring book pages.Bone on Bone with Enthesis by Jennifer Walker

Then, one of my classes was a speech class and I wanted to observe a figure drawing class for a speech. So, I watched most of a 3-hour class with a live model. Near the end the instructor supplied me with charcoal, paper, and a class easel to give it a try myself. All she said to me was to ignore what I think it should look like and draw what I actually see.

It was super cathartic and amazing to draw. I got lost in the feel of the charcoal on my hands, following the lines, and creating light and shadow. At the end she came over to my piece and looked at it in awe. She said right then and there she would make sure I got any kind of scholarship I needed to take her class. She said I was good and she had to have me as her student. I took her charcoal figure drawing classes for a few years. That is what ignited my passion for art.

MSW: What is something positive that art has done for you over the years?

When I began taking art classes I was young and insecure about my body as we all are. My flaws seemed huge and I was not too happy with what I looked like.Self Portrait of Artist in Pain by Jennifer Walker

I began taking the figure drawing classes and something amazing happened inside of me. The most interesting and powerful pieces I created were always with the models that were unusual. The models that had scars or were overweight, had deep wrinkles or an unusual look about them were the most challenging and fun to draw. They became my favorite subjects.

As I looked around and realized this I began to accept myself for what I was. I began to be okay with my body. I began to love what I was and what I had. I began to enjoy my scars and my flaws.

I grew up with an anorexic mother, who was first bulimic, and struggled with her weight during my formative years. To move beyond insecurities about my body was huge for me.

Ever since then, those little unusual things about a person that they do not consider good or valuable become my favorite parts about them. I love the dents and scratches and scars and flaws. It has always made my partners/friends unique and enjoyable to me.

Art helped to heal me.

MSW: Could you tell us a little about the projects you’re working on at the moment?

I have a few commission pieces I am working on currently – a portrait and a custom piece that blends Cthulhu of H.P. Lovecraft with the raven of Edgar Allen Poe. The Cthulhu and raven piece is the only one like that I have ever done like that so it is an amazing and interesting challenge.

Illustration of foot pain by Jennifer Walker

Illustration of what a Fibromyalgia flare feels like. A very apt portrait since this is exactly how I would envision my own foot pain from fibromyalgia.

Otherwise, I am beginning a series of pieces that express my issues with my sensory processing disorder (SPD). I score very high in terms of sensory issues with all my senses and it is a struggle daily to manage those symptoms. Simple things like light or sound can trigger fibromyalgia pain episodes, which then triggers my rheumatoid arthritis. They all start bouncing off one another like a ping pong ball and can really lay me flat.

So, I am working on trying to create pieces that provide a visceral response in the onlooker in a way that words could never provide. Words can easily be misunderstood but I feel like images have a tremendous power to bring the onlooker into an emotion or an idea that might never have been considered before.

MSW: How has art helped with your mental health issues? (I’d like to insert a link here to one of my favorite articles on your site: My Art: Reaching Into the Darkness of Isolation and Loneliness.)

So, I have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) that is often situational and triggered by change or loss. When my mind and heart get bogged down by anxiety or depression I actually quit creating. I become blocked and my soul goes quiet. This stop does not happen very often, but it does happen. And it is very lonely and difficult to describe being in that place to those that do not struggle.

My friends know me so well, and always push me to create when I get like this. Sometimes all I can do is get through it and express what happened afterwards. My art has helped me do that. It has helped me deal with the grief over losing what I used to be and what I was once capable of.

Art has helped me process the divorce and then loss of the step kids that I raised as my own for seven years. Art has helped me express what it is like to feel anxiety in my chest like a tornado that cannot be stopped. Art has been my voice when I could not speak.

Art has helped me deal with my mental health struggles in a realistic and honest way that I have not been able to do otherwise.

MSW: How do you use your art to help with chronic illness?Red Hot Pelvic and SI Joints by Jennifer Walker

Art is my sanity and my passion. I use it to process change, which I do not like, loss and happiness, struggle and triumph. I am a very verbal person – a true communicator. However, there are times when words escape me. There are times when pain wrenches all thought and all reality from my mind. There are times when anxiety keeps me up all night or depression makes me wonder if life is worth living.

My art helps me express those emotions, put them out there on social media and with my friends, and then explain them. All of this helps me to process my life in a way I cannot do otherwise.

Art also helps me focus on something else so that pain is still there but fades into the background. It helps me stand in a moment and be okay with the grief over what I have lost. Art helps me express the tumult of my soul so that I don’t go out and do something self-destructive or damaging in my life.

Art helps me express and be me in my truest form, whether it is ever totally understood or not.

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? Visualizing Sight Through a Migraine by Jennifer Walker

I have an unusual group of artists that inspire me. One of my biggest is Frida Kahlo. I don’t care for folk art and actually prefer surrealism, but some of her pieces are amazing and have brought me to tears. She painted about her pain – which they now believe was fibromyalgia, her back issues, and the miscarriages she had, the loss of love, and her life. She was bisexual as am I, and she was never afraid to be who she was. She painted all of this in a time when no one discussed these topics openly – nonetheless painted them.

So, I use art to express moments of pain and struggle with my diseases, anxiety and depression, and the uphill battle that I face daily. I show the bone crunching ache, the loss of mobility, how regular things like a chair feel like torture devices to me.

I want the uncomfortable moments out in the open. I want to connect with others who are in pain and do not realize they are not alone. I want my art to bring hope to others because they see my pain and my struggle. And I want those who are healthy to be grateful for what they do have and inspire compassion in them for people like me – a person with an invisible illness.

And at the core of it, I want my art to express what words are incapable of saying. Renoir had rheumatoid arthritis like me and made some of his most beautiful and prolific pieces in the middle of advanced, aggressive disease activity. He painted beauty and nature from a wheelchair with a special brush he could hold in his crippled hand. I, on the other hand, want to express what it’s like to have that crippled hand, the loss of mobility in my body and the gut-wrenching pain that rips the words from my mouth.

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?

I think art is integral to processing what happens for a chronic illness patient. Studies have shown that art helps patients with all types of health issues – from breast cancer to MS to degenerative defects. Too often healthcare providers look at patients as a list of symptoms – a puzzle to solve. Art brings the humanity and the mental health back into the equation. We need to be truly seen as a person.

We need to have stress and life events considered when talking about our progress or whether we are responding to treatment. More and more, science is showing that we carry our emotions in our bodies. It is all interconnected.

Creating a piece that describes pain or an experience would go much further than subscribing to a standardized pain scale with corresponding faces.A Skeleton On Fire by Jennifer Walker

Many health care providers get lost in the job unless they get sick. Becoming a patient changes their world.
Art that expresses a patient’s experience could bring so much clarity and power to a discussion between a doctor and patient. It could open new avenues.

Even if a patient doesn’t sketch or draw, there are so many ways to be creative – photography, knitting, sewing, collage, sculpture, and more.

A creative outlet allows us to be human when we feel alone and very often dehumanized in the healthcare system. Art helps us process grief and sadness, anger and pain. Art helps us say what our words cannot.

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

I find this question to be overwhelming because there is no part of me that is not affected. How I get dressed, whether or not I can exercise, attending social events, my anxiety and depression, sleep patterns, connecting with others, sex, relationships, what job I have and whether I can perform up to par – nothing escapes the dark, shadowy hand of my diseases.

I don’t see my rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, SPD, spinal osteoarthritis, neuropathy, hypothyroidism (I truly have a long list), etc. as separate. They are all a part of me. They drive me and control me and move me and sit by my side. They will be in my life until I die.
They dictate what kind of sex and how often I can have it. They dictate how long I can sit in a chair. My diseases control how clear my mind is on any given day.

But…..I do not see them as a menace. I have accepted what they are. My diseases are a part of me. But they are just that – a part. They are not all that I am and they are not who I am and they are not in charge. I am okay with my body and my life. I have accepted it and I manage it and I work towards a better existence.

But at the end of the day – they are not me. I am me. I am an artist. I am a woman. I am queer. I am a web developer. I am a good friend. I am great in relationships. I am curious and I am strong. I am all these things. My diseases are just a part of the whole.

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

I need a sketchbook and either pens or pencils. I carry these things with me no matter where I go or what I do. I sketch sitting in a waiting room, during any kind of down time in classes or work, on lunch and at night. Sometimes I just doodle and other times I focus and pick something to represent.

And if, for some reason, I forget a pen or a pencil I will find one and draw on a piece of paper.

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

This one is tough for me because I constantly change what I create and what I use to create. I have markers, pens, pencils, pastels, watercolor ink, acrylics, watercolor pencils, graphite, charcoal and more. Tornado in My Chest - Jennifer Walker

Each piece speaks to me in two ways – what I will create and what I will use to create it. I never have a favorite – just what I like using most at that time.

When I use color, because I adore black and white pieces more than I can say, I definitely use bold colors. I use primary colors, intense colors. My last piece called “Seeds of Change” is in acrylic. I used blue, orange, yellow and white. My next favorite set of colors is when I use one color but different shades of that color to create a piece – like brown in varying shades.

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

My best advice is to try all different kinds of things – crocheting, knitting, painting, drawing, sketching, etc. Take a class if possible at the local community center or community college. It is always great to get feedback. Feedback helps correct my path and create new ideas.

Finally, I would say check out some YouTube videos. There are lots of artists with free how-to videos available. Other artists are always inspiring me.

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

Yes, I have a piece I created when I was struggling to figure out what was going on with my spine. I was afraid I had ankylosing spondylitis or even that my rheumatoid arthritis had spread to my spine. The pain was scary. I had multiple MRI’s, doctor consults and more to finally find out I have degenerative arthritis in my spine.

It is genetic and there is a lot of inflammation there. I have already lost two inches in height since I was younger. So I created a piece that is a nod to Salvador Dali. It is untitled because I feel like no words can capture it. The piece speaks for itself.

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?

My advice would be to create art in your own way. It is totally acceptable to work on something a little bit at a time. The most important thing is that you keep trying, keep practicing.

Be patient with yourself. It is okay to create something that is not amazing. Who knows – it may inspire your next great piece.

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