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Painting Through the Pain

Three artists share how painting helps distract them from living with chronic pain

By Julia Wynn

Michelangelo is well known for his hypnotizing murals in the Sistine Chapel and classic Renaissance sculptures such as David and Pieta. He created these masterpieces while living with osteoarthritis and severe pain in his hands and joints.

Other famous artists, like Vincent van Gogh, lived with severe migraines and French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. Throughout time, many artists have lived with various forms of arthritis and chronic pain, but still created inspiring and beautiful works of art.

A colorful painting. Next Avenue
"Dream Weaver" by Tara Shuey

Contemporary artist Mark Collen understands the beauty of expressing pain through art. After he herniated a disk in his lower back, he suffered from serious nerve pain. He struggled to communicate to his doctor about his chronic pain.

After showing his artwork, his doctor better understood his challenges and recommended a new treatment plan that helped improve Collen's pain symptoms.

Collen began to make art as a way to visually share his pain experiences with his doctor. After showing his artwork, his doctor better understood his challenges and recommended a new treatment plan that helped improve Collen's pain symptoms.

Through this experience, Collen reached out to other artists living with chronic pain to create a collection of paintings and artwork to capture their journey with pain. He started a nonprofit called Pain Exhibit as a way to educate health care providers and the public about chronic pain through art and to give a voice to the many who suffer in silence.

Several dozen artists are featured on the website, including three artists who share their stories and paintings here. They all recognize that their artwork has been influenced in unexpected, positive and even beautiful ways by their chronic pain.

Dawnique Savala — Artful Shoes

As a young girl growing up in New Mexico, Dawnique Savala always knew she wanted to be an artist. She played volleyball and was a cheerleader, but it was drawing and painting that really inspired her. She remembers hardly ever being sick until at age 27 when she started experiencing pain symptoms.

"Suddenly, I started feeling like I had the flu and was extremely tired," said Savala. "Within a month, joint pain started affecting me. I couldn't do my hair alone anymore without my mom's help."

A colorful painting. Next Avenue
"Shoe" by Dawnique Savala

After visiting her primary care doctor, Savala was diagnosed with Raynaud's syndrome, which turned her fingers blue. Within a few more weeks, she was referred to a rheumatologist who confirmed that she had rheumatoid arthritis. She had heard of the illness before, but thought it was an old person's disease. "I was shocked by the news and was scared how it would affect my life," Savala said.

At the time of the diagnosis, Savala was studying art and finishing her last semester at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas. Her professors told her to take some time off and manage her symptoms. Her rheumatologist put her on two medicines to help control the pain. That combination wasn't working so she tried other medications and now takes a self-injectable biologic. "I still have some flares, but not as often," she said.

After taking some time off, Savala finally finished her Bachelor of Fine Arts and pursued her love of painting — and her love of shoes. She found a way to combine her two passions together. She first started painting shoes and then hoped one day to open her own shoe store with custom-made items.

"Painting is an outlet for my frustration and stress ... Some people turn to yoga, I turn to art."

Her health challenges made it hard for her to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams, but she continues to paint as a way of healing. "Painting is an outlet for my frustration and stress, and helps me cope with all of that," said Savala. "Some people turn to yoga, I turn to art."

Savala notices that her hands are getting stiffer and she has less mobility – which makes it harder for her to draw and paint. She still sketches her favorite shoes. While she can no longer wear high heels sometimes she'll wear them when she's sitting on the couch. "Just wearing heals makes me feel better emotionally," she explained.


Sterling Witt — Explosive Therapy

In the rural countryside outside of Kansas City, Missouri, Sterling Witt spends his days in an art studio creating paintings that he can't express in words. His works are often personal because they attempt to explain the torment that he lives with from chronic pain.

"The act of painting actually makes me feel better. It's an actual physical feeling that I get from doing it."

"For me, creating art is just something I do to help me survive a life of constant pain," said Witt. "It's as if the paintings have become a record of my pain, giving a face to an otherwise faceless enemy."

Pain is the beginning and end of every day for Witt, who was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 15. Three years later, he started to feel back pain that has only increased in severity over the years. "Besides wearing a back brace, my mom and I didn't really know what to do to treat the problem."

Witt has decided not to manage his disease with medications because he doesn't want to lose touch with his pain. He said, "My pain keeps me in tune with my body so I know when I need to take a break or rest."

Instead of taking traditional painkillers, he has explored alternative options, including a type of physical therapy for the spine called the Schroth Method. He also occasionally gets a deep tissue massage called Rolfing to affect the body's posture and reduce spinal curvature. Painting is also therapeutic for him. "The act of painting actually makes me feel better. It's an actual physical feeling that I get from doing it," he explained.

A colorful painting. Next Avenue
Painting by Sterling Witt

Witt, now 45, enjoyed drawing from an early age and studied throughout high school. Growing up with dyslexia, Witt never loved school so he decided not to attend college, but work on campus instead. He was a lab technician and teacher's assistant in art departments and was able to take classes in painting, drawing and ceramics.

In 2019, he had his first museum exhibition, called Explosive, at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum in Saint Joseph, Missouri. The exhibit included 16 paintings created from exploding spray paint cans onto the canvas by shooting them with a .22 long rifle and then painting expressionistic portraits of women on the canvas. One of the paintings is now a part of the museum's permanent collection. 

"My pain condition is coming through less in my painting as I experiment with other new approaches," said Witt.

Tara Shuey — Magical Inspiration

An oil painting  — called Dream Weaver — best describes Tara Shuey's journey with pain. The abstract painting depicts her pain and how it radiates and affects both her body and mind. Shuey, of Northampton, Pennsylvania, has been living for more than a decade with fibromyalgia and trigeminal neuralgia, a condition that affects the trigeminal nerve that carries sensation from the face to the brain.

"With my paintbrush, I feel free."

During one trigeminal nerve pain episode, Shuey drew a crying fairy. The fairy has shooting and burning pain mixed into her cheeks. "This piece also describes my horrible pain," said Shuey. "Painting is very therapeutic for me and takes my mind off my pain."

Shuey remembers a healthy childhood and a passion for art from her earliest days at school. It wasn't until her early 20s when she had her wisdom teeth removed during an emergency procedure that she started feeling pain. It began in her jaw and radiated throughout her face.

A colorful painting. Next Avenue
"Owl" by Tara Shuey

Shuey didn't sleep for 30 days straight, leaving her in a suicidal state and desperate for help. Her doctors tried to treat her with all types of painkillers and sleep medications. "I got to the point that one night I decided to take all the pills I was given and was hoping not to wake up," she said. "After I did that, I told someone and I was rushed to the hospital and that saved my life."

The ER doctors stabilized her, but she requested to see a neurologist who tried a new treatment approach to control the pain in her face. "Once that pain was under control, the pain throughout my body became more noticeable so that needed to be treated as well," Shuey explained.

Focusing on art also helped save her life. She started off with simple pieces like drawing Sponge Bob Square Pants for her son. She let raw emotion inspire her future paintings, including a magical version of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night.

"With my paintbrush, I feel free," said Shuey. "I feel completely part of the painting. I don't feel anything beyond what I'm putting on my canvas."

Julia Wynn
Julia Wynn is a freelance writer based in Garrison, New York. She currently writes on a wide range of health and lifestyle topics from diabetes to mental health to nutrition and well-being. Her stories have appeared in Diabetes Self-Management, Gluten-Free Living and Weight Self-Management. She is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Read More
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