The Restorative Power of Art
I haven’t always appreciated the healing power of art. Throughout my life, I have turned to art as a form of self-expression—and even a boost to my confidence—that I had difficulty finding elsewhere. But it wasn’t until the onset of the pandemic that I truly understood the therapeutic power of art, especially for disabled people. We may turn to art when we are experiencing a significant amount of stress, from either personal or professional events. We may also turn to art when we don’t know where else to turn or what else to do, as is the case for many disabled creators navigating the world right now.
In my personal experience, we also turn to art when we’re experiencing or recovering from trauma and don’t know how to fully process our emotions. Art in all its forms, from writing to drawing to singing and dancing, has been proven to help us survive and thrive. Art therapy, as a discipline, incorporates a variety of artistic expressions in order to help us to improve our overall well-being and become better-equipped to find our place in the world while living with chronic illness or disability.
When I first became disabled, I turned to art out of a desire to come to terms with living in a body that had limitations that were out of my control. I learned that I couldn’t control the pain that I was experiencing on a daily basis or how my body would react to the challenges of living in a disabled body. But I could control the works of art I produced on a semi-regular basis. At the time, creating and making art happened on a semi-regular basis because I was slowly learning to accept that each day was not the same. Some days were filled with bursts of creativity, while other days were consumed by artist’s block (and either brainstorming ways to overcome it or learning to live with it).
In trying to come to terms with my new limitations, I explored a variety of artistic forms of expression in an attempt to find one that either suited me the best or that I enjoyed the most. I spent time learning about the various ways that art can bring solace during the darkest of times, and I took comfort in knowing that art can happen in a variety of forms that I had previously never thought possible.
Though I explored options such as perler beads and crochet patterns, the two art practices that I most connected with were candle making and jewelry making. I bought a series of candlemaking supplies and pored over YouTube videos and crafting sites in order to replicate creative-looking container candles. I stocked up on jewelry-making supplies from local craft stores and precisely followed tutorials in order to make beaded bracelets and necklaces.
I found that the precision of both candle making and jewelry making was similar to another one of my interests: baking. Similar to baking, making candles and jewelry allowed me to create stunning objects that were strikingly opposite to how I felt on the inside. When I felt tired and fatigued, I could create artistic items that were vivid and vibrant. I found that I was able to develop a form of self-expression that I previously didn’t realize was possible. I realized that art as therapy has the power to offer disabled people confidence and creativity during hard times. It can help us find solace. It can also help us spark inspiration.
Creating my own jewelry allowed me to customize it to my liking, substituting often difficult clasps for ones that were easier for me to use without assistance. When the day-to-day of living with chronic illness and pain became overwhelming, I looked at the candles and jewelry I had made previously and was reminded of the creativity that I can bring into the world. As Camille Gomera-Tavarez states in her brilliant article “Learning to Share Your Work”, “There is value in keeping creative outlets to yourself.” I’ve learned that especially for those of us who are disabled, there can be value in creating items for yourself, and having an ongoing reminder that you are enough.
Living in a disabled body is work. Navigating life as a disabled person in the world is work. This is especially true for those of us who also fall under other marginalized identities, such as queer or trans, and whose rights continue to be constested or eroded. If your entire existence feels like work, there is something especially therapeutic in creating and making for yourself, and not feeling pressured to add more work on top of the already existing work of daily living.
Disabled people can create and make art for any reason, from pure curiosity to personal passion projects to side hustle to full-time job. When it comes to art as therapy for disabled people, it can be helpful to remember that it can transform and revitalize us in our darkest days and allow ourselves the freedom to follow the path that works best for us.
Personally, I still make candles and jewelry, though not as consistently as I used to. In addition to accepting my limitations and how they impact my art and output, I’ve also come to terms with the fact that art doesn’t have limits. It’s okay to move onto other artistic pursuits that best fit you in a given moment. The pandemic has changed and continues to change us. By extension, our artistry can evolve as we do.
I’ve learned to accept that I can explore other creative interests that I’ve been curious about–such as embroidery–and always return to my previous interests later. Or I can simply acknowledge that candles and jewelry were the right artistry pursuits for a given moment in time. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to acknowledge the making and creating that helped us work through a difficult period in time. It’s okay to grieve that part of your life and move on to something else.
No matter how art affects us as disabled people living in a world that isn’t designed for us, I try to keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to make or create. And I remind myself that it’s okay to pause, continue, or move on. Art can be as adaptable as we are.