Art Healing

20th April 2023 Estimated reading time: 4 mins
From Paint Magazine: May 2019
SAA Professional Associate, Issy Coe, shares her experience of teaching art, both as a therapeutic activity and as something that benefits the health and wellbeing of her students.
When I trained as an occupational therapist some 50 years ago, it was well known that ‘occupation’ in an activity was beneficial for the rehabilitation of patients with a wide range of medical conditions. Over the years the focus changed, and the activity part of treatment was lost. But recently, the NHS and GPs in some parts of the country started to refer people for ‘Art on Prescription’, as part of a health and wellbeing initiative. Whether funds are available in your area for the provision of this sort of service, is a bit of a postcode lottery, but there are lots of classes available privately.

Having a previous teaching qualification as well as my experience as an OT, I decided to offer art classes for small groups. This has built up over the last few years and I now concentrate on teaching, demonstrating, and my own painting. Teaching is hugely rewarding, especially when it is evident that art is making such a difference to people’s lives, as the following case studies demonstrate:

Case Study: Heather

Heather had a very demanding job as Head of HR for a large group of holiday companies. At the time she began to feel ill, life was stressful: she had two teenage sons and was caring for her sick mother. She thought she had a virus, but it slowly got worse, to the point where she couldn’t walk in a straight line, was in pain, couldn’t concentrate, had massive headaches and could fall asleep at the wheel of her car.

She was finally diagnosed with severe ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, also often referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). She felt useless and even suicidal. For five years she struggled on, then saw an advertisement for my art classes. Having an insatiable appetite for learning she felt this was something she should look at.

“I went to see Issy in her studio and she was calming, positive and encouraging. I signed up for two-hour morning classes (my best time) and felt like I had come out of a dark hole into a healing environment. The studio was perfect for me. I struggled with windows, as sudden movements outside would completely distract me, yet here the light came from north facing roof windows and daylight lighting.
“Issy’s style of teaching the technicalities of watercolour suited me perfectly as I couldn’t concentrate on books. She gave me the confidence to believe in my own abilities and, by carefully structuring the lesson, helped me achieve a perfectly acceptable painting in my first lesson.

Heather has been attending classes now for three years, and has blossomed into an outgoing, vibrant and hardworking member of the group. With my occupational therapist’s hat on, I have witnessed the psychological changes as she has progressed on this therapeutic journey which now also includes more involvement in her local community. When asked what art has meant to her, she says: “Art has been a major factor in my recovery and has been the foundation that has enabled me to fulfil my need for achievement.”

I am sure most people can relate to the fact that, if they are busy doing something – for example painting or craft – it can help them relax and forget about a medical condition, pain or anxiety. This has been the case with Jean, my next case study.

Case Study: Jean

Jean is now in her seventies, but aged 16 was involved in a serious train crash which resulted in fracture dislocations of her spine and pelvis. Unable to walk for four years, her rehabilitation was long and painful and she has suffered chronic pain and serious mobility problems all her life.

“It is such a chore to try and go out as I need someone with me because I fall quite often. As I have got older the pain has become worse, so I am on morphine. I lost all confidence for a while and became quite depressed.

“About four years ago I heard about Issy’s art classes and decided to give them a go. I attend watercolour classes and also oils (which I really enjoy as they are more forgiving!) and I find that concentrating on the painting, learning new techniques and the social element of being with friends doing something I love, help me relax. Being less tense also helps lessen the pain.”

Jean loves animals, nature and the outdoors, but her mobility issues prevent her from joining plein air sessions, so we bring the outside inside by painting rural landscapes, often working from photographs of the local area. She enjoys her painting so much that she has set up a mini studio at home – her own therapeutic environment – and her confidence has grown so much that she is now Treasurer of her local art club.

For more information on Issy and her work, please visit:

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