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Study: Healing Powers of the Visual Arts


The wheel outside the door is just the moon. Those objects hanging from the eaves, just autumn clouds. – Liang Li

Arthritis affects large numbers of older people, including an estimated 18 per cent of Canadians, according to the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. But new research is suggesting that the visual arts can be a powerful coping resource for older women with arthritis.

Researchers interviewed 12 women, who had lived with arthritis for many years. They were aged 62 to 81 years of age. All chose the visual arts as a serious leisure activity, after leaving the work force.

The study was led by Dr. Frances Reynolds in the school of health sciences and social care at Brunel University (Uxbridge, Middlesex, U.K.).

Reynolds and her colleagues found that involvement in the visual arts can have beneficial effects for well-being in later life.

The findings appeared online in the Journal of Aging Studies (January 15, 2011).

Managing pain

Nine of 12 participants said their artwork helped them manage pain by providing opportunities for deep concentration, and psychological escape.

As "Alison" put it:

I think one of the greatest things is it is such good therapy. I can get totally absorbed in doing it. I can forget about anything that I might be worried about, even pain. I can maybe sit for an hour and a half doing painting. I might suffer a bit afterwards but at the time I’m not actually thinking about it all.

Engaging the world

Participants said their art helped them to shift their focus outward, linking them to the outside world, especially to nature.

For example, "Pamela" enjoyed taking photographs outdoors. She used her observations and photography as a stimulus for painting:

Yesterday, I was in the New Forest and the greens are incredible, really acidy lime. . . . And if I close my eyes I can still see it, so that was inspirational, the wonderful freshness of it.

In a similar vein, "Sophia" chose flowers from the garden to create satisfying visual displays:

That’s my favourite subject, still life, because I cannot go out, you see. So when I am in the house I can find my best pots . . . And I get flowers from the garden. And I put them together. And I always wait for the sunshine to flow, to make a beautiful warm color. The light, the sunshine will play on things. And, then when I make my still life, they are very much how I feel when I look at them. I feel warm and comfortable.

Positive identity

Finally, participants said their artistic work promoted an "able" identity, which gave them a sense of personal achievement. As well, it raised their status in the community and helped them downplay stereotypes associated with illness.

Alison explained:

I’ve always enjoyed using my hands, I used to love doing the gardening, I would do decorating in the house, and my needlework. I used to make lampshades and all different things, clothes for the children, for myself. . . . So because I am a practical person, with that creative side, I need to have something. If I couldn’t do the painting, I think I would feel starved.

And take the case of "Jennifer": who has developed a unique style of machine embroidery:

There aren’t many people in the country who do what I do, which makes if fairly specialized. I have exhibitions here [in my study] . . . and people come and say, "Oh, I’ve never seen anything like this before." And I say, "Well you probably won’t."

Power of the arts

Research suggests that involvement in the visual arts can help maintain well-being in later life.

The new study found that visual art-making can help older women cope with arthritis in three interconnecting ways. It can help them:

  • control pain;
  • engage creativity with the wider world; and
  • promote a positive identity.