Art making has provided individuals in creating a new identity through engaging their creativity. There is an abundance of research on both the change in identity among the chronically ill and the effectiveness of therapeutic art, but so far little to connect the two. There is no question in literature that the self-identity of an individual is brought into question when faced with illness, but how can art help? Therapeutic art is a newer phenomenon that is strengthening as mental health is becoming more respected. Art enhances quality of life, brings communities together, and benefits one’s overall psyche.
Webster defines identity as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is,” or the defining characteristic (Webster). A mother and daughter, Kaethe Weingarten and Miranda Worthen, have been active in literature about their illnesses. Weingarten has had breast cancer twice, and Worthen was born with a rare genetic disorder, Beckwith-Wiedeman Syndrome, that has impact on many organs. When discussing identity Worthen points out that when faced with chronic illness, one must include that illness into the understanding of one’s self.
She says, “she experiences two identity positions and must ‘decide’ which one is active, or which one to activate, depending on the circumstance” (Weingarten). Often, people with illness can feel like a healthy person with an illness or a disabled individual. In general, people often find themselves searching for their identity in early adolescence or middle adulthood. But those facing the end of life often find themselves searching for who they are and what their legacy could be. This process is seen as both confronting and rewarding.
The effects of illness can be deliberating and often requires one to assume some sort of ownership for the illness, depending heavily on culture. In his article, Identity and Psychological Ownership in Chronic Illness and Disease State, Wally Karnilowicz states “health care professionals need to further embrace the psychological effects of illness and to be away of and create the psychosocial cultural environment best suited for enabling the development o a patient’s positive self-identity within psychological ownership” (Karnilowicz).
Karnilowicz believes that the process for identity shaping needs to be collaborative, empowering, and motivating, all characteristics that art can provide. Art therapy and therapeutic art are guided meditations facilitated by a therapist in order to improve the functioning or wellbeing of a client. The process makes use of art media, creative processes, and results to explore feelings, emotional conflicts, improve self-awareness, manage addictions and behavior, improve social skills and reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self esteem in clients (ArtTherapy).
Art activity is used in a variety of settings and both in groups and private sessions. Art therapy has proven affective with diverse populations experiencing “developmental, medical, educational, and social or psychological impairment” and “trauma resulting from combat, abuse, and natural disaster; persons with adverse physical health conditions such as cancer, traumatic brain injury, and other health disability; and persons with autism, dementia, depression, and other disorders” (ArtTherapy). Art has been used to resolve conflicts, reduce negative stress, achieve personal insight, and provides an opportunity to enjoy art making.
The use of therapeutic arts can benefit those facing chronic illness and help form their identity. In the Education of Creative Art Therapy to Cancer Patients: Evaluation and Effects, Adriaan Visser and Mayke Op’ T Hoong studied the effect of art making on 175 cancer patients in her course Cancer and Creative Therapy. The program met the needs of the participants and allowed them “to discover, express, and deal with their feelings, the disease, experience personal growth, and have supportive contact with fellow patients” (Visser).
Participants were able to display their work at an art show and gain the confidence they had lost with their illness. Visser and Op’ T Hoong reported that the art program allowed the patients to explore more, create, and enjoy time with their peers in a way that improved their overall quality of life. Participants reported that they wished the sessions were longer, hardly a complaint of the program. According to Visser and Op’ T Hoong, more research and follow up studies need to be made on the impact Art Therapy has on Cancer patients, but they are confident of the benefits.
Being part of an art making class can create a unique, positive, and deep bond between cancer patients. In a study of the effects of Art Therapy in community groups, Valerie Howells and Thomas Zelnik found that art making has powerful and benefit effects on both individuals and their communities. In their article, Making art: A Qualitative Study of Personal and Group Transformation in a Community Arts Studio, participants reported feeling self-validated in their art program.
Howells and Zelnik reported that the art group participants felt making art was therapeutic and spiritual, but did not feel like therapy. Many confessed that the disconnection they felt between therapy and the art program was the reason they agreed to participate. Howells and Zelnik found the “organic, self-healing potential of community that was demonstrated in this simple but credible art studio” particularly encouraging (Howells). Not only did art-making benefit the individual, but the community as a whole.
Susan M. D. Carr agrees that the impact of life-threatening and chronic illness often causes self-identity disruption. In Carr’s article on Portrait therapy, Revisioning Self-Identity: The Role of Portraits, Neuroscience, and the Art Therapist’s ‘Third Hand’, research on perceptual distortion caused by stress and emotion proves that people may see themselves and the world differently. Neuroscience could help art therapist’s understand the fundamental aspects of the work and positively influence the practice of art therapy, while also helping to define identity.
Carr believes that “interdisciplinary neuro-art therapy research would be beneficial in investigating the effect of positive and negative images on memory, in particular whether images created in art therapy enable the formation of vivid positive memories which can be drawn on to guard against depression and enable optimism and agency” (Carr). Painting portraits of and for other patients is a unique way to give time and empathy. The paintings encourage patients to talk about identity and to tell stories of their lives.
Carr believes these portraits act as a bridge between the body and brain, imagination and reality, and emotion and memory. The portraits also allow for the subjectivity of a person to remain even after death. At five years old, battling A. L. L. Leukemia, Olivia Bennett began her relationship with art. Painting helped her with the nerve damage caused by her treatments The Southlake, Texas native used art as a coping mechanism for her treatment, but by eight years old she realized she had a business.
Bennett’s first painting sold for $50, and at twelve she was seen on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Now cancer free, Bennett opened her first gallery at fourteen and began teaching watercolor classes. Bennett credits art for getting her through the challenges of cancer and creating her own identity as an artist. Without her narrative with Leukemia, she would have not gotten the media coverage that boosted her career and who she is at such a young age.
Art promotes autonomy, confidence, self-worth, and provides an escape from the challenges one may face. Therapeutic art should be used in multiple settings when working with chronically ill patients. The community aspect of art making creates a unique bond that aids patients tremendously. While the benefits of art activity on the identity of the chronically ill seems obvious, there is still a lot of research to be done in order to academically prove the connection.