I always wanted to be an artist. I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts right before I received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS). I was 27.
When my symptoms appeared, I thought I had to give up that dream because concentration was just out of the picture. MS can cause dizziness, hand tremors, anxiety, and depression, and at the time, I had trouble lifting myself out of that hole.
My art was pretty much nonexistent for a couple of years, but eventually, I started to look at art as a healing process. And I did that by letting the different mediums do the work for me. That’s what I recommend to all the people that I work with as an artist who uses art as therapy — try alcohol ink, crayons, pastels, whatever medium lets you explore.
I still remember the very first time that I started to grasp myself again, grasp a little bit of who I was, holding a brush. And that’s what I hoped people might experience at the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America’s (MSAA) recent Paint Along night, cohosted by Joe Caliva, a docent at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
Participants were provided with two makeup wedges, a paintbrush, canvas board, all necessary paints, and some snacks. I let the artists know that it was OK if they get their hands dirty when using the materials, and the sponges in particular.
Often, getting messy can be seen as something negative — a failure to keep clean, and therefore another hurdle that needs to be overcome.
Once participants expect to get messy and are reassured that it is OK and just another step in the process, then usually they can begin to relax.
Just getting to the table is the hard part. I always encourage participants to thank themselves for taking time out of their busy day to do this fun, engaging activity.
It is often so difficult for busy people with lives and careers to make time for themselves. And yet, it is so important for a person’s mental well-being. Add to that a debilitating chronic illness that can literally stop you in your tracks, and the creative aspect is, to me, even more important.
When coming up with any project, I give careful consideration to the participants. Some may not have picked up a paintbrush since childhood. Others may never have picked up a brush at all. It’s most certainly an intimidating experience to create an entire work of art. Even I, as an experienced painter, need to take my time when thinking about a painting and the types of steps involved. I call it painting paralysis, and it feels exactly the way it sounds.
In the middle and at the end of the session, we invited people to show their work. Everybody would hold their work up to the camera, and there was something wonderful about each piece I saw — a particular way that they made their waves or the shapes that the clouds made or the specific way the brushstrokes on the water made it seem as though it was moving, or as if there was a current underneath it.
As an instructor, I feel that it’s especially important to point out qualities of a project that make the individual piece unique.
Sometimes, I point out what was previously labeled as a “mistake” by the artist and reassure them that it all came together thanks to their persistence and patience working with the medium. When handing out compliments, I will always take into consideration some of the steps that may make the painting difficult for some and do my best to point out the ways they were able to work through it all.
Overall, the entire event was a success. On this evening, painters took some time out of their busy and possibly MS-centered lives to paint together as a group. It was and always is a rewarding experience to be able to see the good in every painter’s work.
For those considering an art session, the feelings of calm or accomplishment during an activity may not last for the entirety of the project — you may not even fill up the entire page at first — but you can’t let go of the fact that you did it. You need to praise yourself because those small victories add up over a long period of time.
This positive feedback can help build a link between a person’s health and their healing. Those tiny moments of joy and positive reinforcement add up to the sum of a person’s overall well-being.
Hannah Celeste Garrison is a visual artist and nature lover from San Antonio, Texas. She
graduated in 2014 from the University of Texas at San Antonio with her Bachelor in
Fine Arts. She currently volunteers as a self-help group leader for the National MS Society of San
Antonio once per month and AnCan (Answer Cancer Foundation) twice per month.
She is an Artist-In-Residence for Hearts Need Art, a San Antonio-based nonprofit organization that works to bring the arts to patients facing life altering health challenges.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, her time was spent with patients at the outpatient and inpatient settings at a local hospital. She worked to design, implement, and engage with patients with collaborative arts projects, group art projects, window painting, live art demonstrations, and patient bedside activities. At present, she engages with patients and students via online platforms, utilizing the art supplies that her students already have available to them and creating accessible, patient-centered projects.