What I find fascinating about the idea of using art to express the illness experience is that it translates the physical and mental components of illness into a visual image. While some illnesses are often visible, others remain invisible. Art has the power to visually illuminate the visible and unveil the invisible.
As I explored artistic depictions of illness, I found that art seemed to be used in three main ways: to encourage another person’s illness experience, to express one’s own illness experience, and to depict the illness experiences of others.
Fiber Arts and Loose Ends includes a series of quilts created as tributes to survivors, an uplifting collection for sufferers. While some are more abstract, including depictions of plants used in cancer treatment, others incorporate language into this artistic medium. Words of Love by Annabel Ebersole incorporated the words “Courage,” “Love,” “Faith,” “Belief in Miracles,” “Hope,” and “Trust.” These encouraging words reminded me of the triumph narrative, but they also embody an optimistic take on the quest narrative.
While art is sometimes turned to for relief and encouragement, it can also be used as a space for self-expression and release. William Utermohlen used art as a form of narrative, to tell the tale of his transformation with Alzheimer’s. His drawings reflect his gradual loss of self and identity through the distortion of his facial features. Incorporated colors seem sporadic (the fourth drawing in particular seems to reflect the chaos narrative), until ultimately Utermohlen has become a faceless black and white charcoal sketch.
In addition to providing support for the ill, art can be used to spread awareness to the well. The Scar Project is a particularly powerful photography collection of breast cancer survivors, especially depicting women who have had mastectomies and are redefining the female body. With the motto “Breast Cancer Is Not A Pink Ribbon,” these works are a direct resistance against the pink ribbon that has become the face of breast cancer (and is also a form of the triumph narrative). These works also revise the restitution narrative of breast cancer by suggesting that rather than a return to normalcy, breast cancer can result in a redefinition of the female body and female identity.
Just as Frank’s narrative categories often overlap and intertwine elements of illness, art seems to transform and evolve illness, achieving a multiplicity of narratives within a single work of art.