Sandra Woods
Art despite pain

In the news

(posted on 9 Jun 2024)

My solo show "Watercolours on Two Wheels", at McGill University, will wrap up on June 21st after a 3-month run.
The show is open to the public, with no fees, at the MCLL Lounge in McGill's School of Continuing Studies - part of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning.
This exhibition features watercolour paintings from - or based on - my adventures cycling around western Montréal Island.
There are plein-air works, painted entirely using my bike-as-easel set-up, and studio watercolours from sketches done during my bike-ride rest breaks.
I curated a mix of florals, landscapes, waterscapes, and wildlife paintings, to reflect the beauty and diversity of this area; farms, historic buildings, lakes, nature parks, rivers, streams, and even a vineyard!
As usual, I took the opportunity of my Artist's Statement for the show to focus on chronic pain, noting that I began learning to paint and draw in 2021 as a technique to help manage several symptoms of my bizarre autoimmune and neuro-inflammatory disease.
This art-learning began as movement-therapy and chronic pain management for my right hand and arm - severely impacted by CRPS - and as brain-plasticity or neuroplasticity training for my CRPS-related Mild Cognitive Impairment.

Exhibition details:
"Watercolours on Two Wheels"
680 Sherbrooke West, Suite 229
Montréal (next to the McCord Museum)
Mon-Thu 0900 to 1700
Fridays    0900 to 1500
Closed weekends & evenings.

(posted on 2 Jun 2024)

On Thursday I finally made it out to the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), to view a major exhibition - in the nick of time.
"Georgia O’Keeffe and Henry Moore: Giants of Modern Art" ran from February 10 through June 2, 2024; it ended today.
I'd planned to visit this retrospective long before its final week in Montréal, and had even reserved tickets to an MMFA members-only lecture on March 27th.
"Georgia O’Keeffe: An American Phenomenon" was presented by American historian, curator, and independent art scholar Barbara Buhler Lynes, but I unfortunately had to miss it due to a family emergency.
It sounded lovely: "This presentation describes how Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, came to be one of the most recognized American artists and the first woman in this country to achieve such iconic status for her contribution in her lifetime".
And then somehow, after I missed that lecture, each time I'd make new plans to go see the exhibition they'd get derailed... by unplanned medical appointments for my two rare diseases, meetings related to my Dad's estate, car problems, a funeral for a friend' parent, and more.
I'd wanted to see this exhibition, even though I'm not a huge fan of "Modern Art" as a genre, because of the overarching importance of the natural world to both of these artists.
To be honest, this show blew me away; it was absolutely brilliant. These are just a few of the many photos I took, and don't begin to do justice to this exhibition.

"Organized by the San Diego Museum of Art, this groundbreaking exhibition creates a new dialogue between the work of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) and Henry Moore (1898-1986), exploring how these iconic 20th-century artists developed their own shape of modern art firmly rooted in the natural world".
An astoundingly wide range of works by each artist were included, in thought-provoking juxtapositions and placements.

I never thought I'd have the opportunity to view so many of these seminal pieces by either artist, let alone to view recreations of their studio spaces.
Each room of the exhibition was a tribute to the organic shapes that O’Keeffe and Moore preferred and interpreted, as well as to the overarching importance of nature in their work.
This was particularly striking in the large areas dedicated to Bones & Stones, Seashells & Flowers, and Landscapes of Forms.

As noted in a March 2024 piece in Forbes, "Georgia O’Keeffe And Henry Moore Exhibition Reveals Unlikely Pair’s Surprising Bond", these two artists had much in common and may even have met.
"Biographical oddities aside, their deeper connection – one previously unrealized – centers around a shared fascination with nature.
Natural forms in particular.
Seashells, bones, stones, old pieces of wood acquired on walks.
Their respective studios were filled with them.
As were their artworks, obviously in O’Keeffe’s case, more subtly, but no less apparent with Moore once recognized."

"As two of the greatest and most recognized names in the history of Modern art, O’Keeffe and Moore have been the subjects of innumerable exhibitions and publications.
Now, for the first time, their lives and art are examined in parallel in this exhibition presenting over 120 works, together with recreations of each artist’s studio, in a partnership between the Henry Moore Foundation and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In the resulting unique and powerful dialogue, O’Keeffe’s paintings and Moore’s sculptures underscore the fundamental relationship between humanity and the natural world – a theme that will undoubtedly resonate with audiences today."
Well, it definitely resonated with me.
If you have a chance to view this touring event, it's truly worthwhile - and give yourself extra time to wander back to the start of the exhibition and view it all over again, after having read through all the exhibition notes.

(posted on 26 May 2024)

I signed this painting today, after looking at it with ‘fresh eyes’ once I had set it aside for a week. There’s a saying, for watercolours in particular, that too often a painting is ruined when the artist tries to ‘finish it’. The point is that, to maintain the ephemeral qualities of watercolour pigments, it’s usually best to leave something to the viewer’s imagination in any given scene.

This has definitely been true for some of my paintings, when I’ve wished that I could go back and remove the last brushstroke – or even the entire last wash (layer) of a multi-layered watercolour.

To be honest, sometimes I get so caught up in the shimmering dance of pigment and water on a surface that I forget to think about what I’d planned to paint in the first place; I become enthralled by the sheer joy of experimenting with the movement and blending of pigments on the page.

That’s what happened with this one, but only in the underpainting and first washes; I’d already mapped out in my mind – and in my sketchbook! – what I wanted to convey.

"Cosmic crocuses" is another of my watercolour experiments, this time centered around the concepts of fragility and resilience.

The first-glance or obvious link is between the changes to our planet (and to our solar system) and how these changes will affect the spring flowers and other plants that we take for granted. Not only at a global, regional, or local scale, but also as individual plants.

Is there a limit to the resiliency of all the flowers that bloom year after year, like old friends, in your garden – or mine? How can we help them adapt, flourish, and thrive in changing conditions?

The deeper meaning of this painting is applying the same question to individual human beings... What are the impacts of climate change and other changes (conflicts, discrimination, education, employment issues, healthcare, wars, and more) on individual people? How can we help them adapt, flourish, and thrive in changing conditions?

This is what can happen when a bioethics and philosophy nerd learns to paint. Many of my paintings are simply scenes that caught my eye, usually while out cycling or hiking. My experimental paintings, however, are more about concepts and philosophical constructs – and almost always questions.

This is also true of my chronic pain awareness paintings, as part of my Art Despite Pain initiative.

(posted on 19 May 2024)

This past Friday evening was the opening night Vernissage of another art show, the juried annual exhibition of the Women's Art Society of Montreal (WASM). This year's edition is special, as it marks the 130th anniversary of this historic Canadian art organization.
Being presented at the lovely Viva Vida Gallery in Pointe-Claire Village, not far from my home, this show feels much more personal to me than usual; my husband and I have coffee across the street, almost once a week!
Unfortunately I got home later than expected, so missed the start of the Vernissage at 1730 - along with the awards presentations and speeches.
So it was quite a shock when I walked in, and another artist I know told me that one of my paintings had a "dot".

I should mention that each artist in this juried exhibition was allowed to display only two paintings; both of mine are watercolours, in a more contemporary an experimental style for me.
Coincidentally with the recent Northern Lights phenomenon, caused by solar flares & geomagnetic storms, one of them is entitled "Aurora borealis, the Rockies". I say coincidentally, because I submitted my watercolours to this exhibition long before I'd heard anything about this season's extraordinary Aurora borealis.
The other is a Chronic Pain awareness painting, named "One in Five Canadians Lives with Chronic Pain". It features an orange-flame background on which float/fly five bird-like creatures; the orange pain-suffering figure is being ignored by most of the four blue creatures... But one of the blue figures is leaning down to interact with the orange one.
My goal for this piece was to convey the message that anyone can be that one figure/person, showing empathy towards someone living with chronic pain (or any other chronic illness).
Living with an invisible chronic conditions often caused isolation, and that can be prevented - by simple human kindness.

Back to "the dot" - have you been wondering what that meant?
In this exhibition, a red dot beside a painting signifies that it has been sold while a blue dot indicates that it was awarded an Honourable Mention by the Jurors.
When I finally got to my Aurora borealis painting, after touring the rest of the exhibition, I was absolutely thrilled to see a blue dot beside it.
What a truly wonderful way for me to celebrate the 130th anniversary of the Women's Art Society of Montreal - Thank you so much to the Jurors!
This art show continues through May 22, 2024 at the Viva Vida Gallery in Pointe-Claire Village; at 278 Lakeshore Road in Pointe-Claire, Québec.
A portion of proceeds of this event will be donated to mental health initiatives at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) hospitals, here in Montréal.

During a late-evening drive from Montréal to Ottawa in the spring of 1989, a friend and I pulled off the highway to watch a stunning natural phenomenon; the Aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. Pulsing across the sky in waves of greens, pinks, and purples, I recall being captivated by this extraordinary sight.
I'd never before seen the Aurora borealis, and we soon found out that this natural lightshow had appeared much further south than usual due to a major geomagnetic storm.
This storm, caused by solar flares, was in the news when we arrived in Ottawa as it had also knocked out much of Quebec's hydroelectric grid and caused a half-day blackout for more than five million Canadians.
Until this past weekend, that night thirty-five years ago had remained the only time I'd seen the Northern Lights.
So when I heard recently that another major geomagnetic storm was expected to once again push the Aurora borealis further south than usual, I scoured local news reports and autonomy websites for details.
The Northern Lights were expected to appear over Montréal Island overnight on Friday, then continue through the early hours of Sunday, but we'd only have clear skies on the first night.
Astronomers advised that this geomagnetic activity would likely make this Aurora borealis more colourful and vivid than usual, as well as pushing it over a much larger area; not only over swathes of southern Canada, but also into the Midwestern US and parts of Europe that wouldn't normally experience this phenomenon.
Even with an almost cloudless forecast for Friday night, experts recommended leaving the light pollution of urban regions and traveling to darker places for the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
The reality, though, is that my usual bedtime is about 2200. Living with two different rare diseases means that I rarely sleep well, and keeping the same bedtime is supposed to help.
Before hitting the hay I went outside and looked skyward, but couldn't see anything other than stars in the sky.
At about midnight I was woken by intense pain in my right hand and arm, from one of my rare diseases.
Hoping to finally see the Aurora borealis, I quietly dressed and slipped outside - trying not to wake my sweetheart. With the streetlamps still lit, and several homes in the vicinity bright with excessive outdoor lighting, I still couldn't see the Aurora borealis.
Given the level of pain in my hand, I knew that it'd take at least an hour before I'd be able to get back to sleep, so I decided to drive to a darker area not too far away.
My sweetheart woke as I was getting my keys, and opted to go back to sleep - a decision I think he later regretted, because what I saw was so spectacular!
I headed northwest, over a bridge off Montréal Island, towards a specific spot I knew would be dark - some waterfront farmland on the way up to the Ontario border.
News reports had said that this geomagnetic storm might push the northern lights as far south in the U.S. as Alabama and Northern California, and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to see them again.
My destination was a lakefront park, facing north across the water and the forest beyond; a perfect choice. Several other people were already there, and I spent a spectacular hour watching the gorgeous waves of colour ebb, flow, and pulse... and chatting quietly with strangers.

An elder gentleman was letting everyone take a look through his telescope, a young woman with her binoculars; I later found out that they were grandfather and granddaughter. One person was off to the side, wearing a dress that could've been a representation of the Aurora borealis, using a tripod-mounted camera. I approached and complimented the dress, asking if they'd mind some company - away from the haze enveloping the others, who were mostly smoking... something.
We had a lovely one-thirty-in-the-morning conversation ranging from astronomy to birdwatching to gardening, all with our heads tilted upwards to watch the lightshow across the sky.
Every now and then a few camera shots would be taken, then I'd try to capture the overhead scenes using my phone - with no success. My images were dark with a few vague blurs, and I didn't want to ruin my night vision by adjusting the settings.
So my new aquaintance, Émilia, shared a few of her photos with me and gave me permission to post them on my social media; with photo credit to Émilia Goulet (she's taking a break from social media, and asked that I not tag her; she has one of my "handles" in case she changes her mind).

Just before 0200 we'd both decided to head back to our homes, so I helped Émilia stow her photography equipment in her car-sharing vehicle - and declined her offer of a swig of the "super-stong coffee" she'd brought in a thermos.
It was a beautiful and ethereal event, and I'm glad I opted to head to a darker location rather than simply hoping to eventually see the Northern Lights over my home.
I hope you had an opportunity to see this geomagnetic storm in action as well, without any of the power outages or communications interruptions that occurred in 1989.
For more information on this geomagnetic storm, CBC News (the Canadian Broadcasting Company) has a good summary
* Photo credits: Émilia Goulet 11.05.2024, Montréal, Canada.

There's something new on TV this week, free and online, about chronic pain.
The award-winning short-form documentary series, "You Can't Ask That", from the CBC Gem and Accessible Media (AMI-tv) networks, finally created an episode on Chronic Pain to close out Season 3.
Although it was released today, the filming of my segment of this episode was done back in February at Pixcom Productions' TV studio in Old Montréal.
I was filmed alone, as were some others in different cities, and there were also some small groups of two people. Aside from the groups, none of us were aware of the other answers to each question.

Although I was in filming for an hour and a half, the final episode is only 22 minutes long; it will be a half-hour TV show, once commercials are added.
We all answered the same questions, but our replies were edited to avoid having too many people saying the same things in response to each question.
The concept of the series is to ask people living with disabilites and/or health challenges the kinds of impolite or even derogatory questions that many of us have already encountered in real life...
And to give us the opportunity to respond - honestly and sometimes emotionally - in a safe envionment.

The questions are MEANT to be almost confrontational; that's the whole concept of this award-winning documentary series, to have people answer questions that "polite society" would never ask.
From the introduction to the Chronic Pain episode:
"You’re not really disabled, are you? Are you really in pain, or do you just want to get high off pain meds?
These outspoken Canadians set the record straight on the stigmas and realities of chronic pain."

So if you notice me sometimes looking towards the ceiling during the episode, or off to the side, it's because I'm trying not to cry. Because if I'd have started crying then they'd have stopped filming, and I wanted to finish taping the show.
I'm hoping this episode could be a way for people living with pain to start or revive conversations about how they're really doing, with their family and friends, maybe even colleagues and community members.
And to let them know that they're not alone.

You can watch the Chronic Pain episode of You Can't Ask That here:

I got a nice surprise last week, while catching up on art magazines and newsletters after getting my solo show "Watercolours on Two Wheels" set up.
What was the surprise? My tip for plein-air painting was selected for the article "13 Plein Air Pointers", for the May/June 2024 issue of Artists Magazine.
Every now and then the magazine will create an article by asking several of their featured artists the same specific question. They’ll also ask the magazine's artist-readers to respond to the same question, then select a few of these to accompany the article.
Back in January, Artists Magazine asked: "What’s an important thing to know when plein air painting?"
In the May/June 2024 issue, they combined the responses from three featured artists with the Top Ten reader responses in "13 Plein Air Pointers" - including mine.
What was my response - what did I say was "an important thing to know when plein air painting"?
"You can't squeeze the entire 360° view into a single painting!
Pick a sliver of the landscape, using a viewfinder or a photo from your phone, and paint that scene.
Use artistic license to move or remove features that negatively impact the overall composition of a painting; make mountains, people, rocks, streams, trees, etc. part of the composition and rhythm of the piece."
What do you think? Was that a good tip for painting outdoors, en plein-air, the way the Impressionists often did?
Feel free to let me know in the Guest book (comments) section of the website!
You can read this article from the Artists Magazine here - enjoy it!

(posted on 21 Apr 2024)

This post is to say Thank You. To you, for stopping by! To the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning (MCLL), housed within the School of Continuing Studies of McGill  University, for presenting my solo show this semester.
"Watercolours on Two Wheels" opened this past Monday, in The Lounge, and continues through June 21, 2024.
And I'd also like to say thank you for highlighting this show in the Spring edition of the MCLL News.
From the Exhibition Introduction:
"In 2016 I developed CRPS, a rare autoimmune and neuroinflammatory disease with execrable pain and many other symptoms.
CRPS caused my Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) in late 2018.
A lifetime art lover, I began learning to paint and sketch in 2021; as DIY neuroplasticity training for my MCI, and movement therapy for my CRPS-affected right hand/arm.
Watercolours touched my soul.
My Art Despite Pain initiative soon began, using my artwork to raise awareness of chronic pain.
With art added to my 'exercise + nature' pain-management tools, I carry watercolour or sketching supplies in a back- or bike-pack.
I adore painting en plein-air (outdoors), when my symptoms necessitate rest stops while cycling; watercolours dry quickly, pack easily.
These scenes are from my rides on Montreal Island, often in nature parks."

Most of all, on his birthday today, I give thanks to my dad. He left us last July, but will be with me always...
It's from him that I got my love of nature and of outdoor sports, as he took me canoeing, cross-country skiing, cycling, hiking, and more as a young child. And he taught me the endurance I need to keep doing these kinds of activities after I developed two different rare diseases.
What we call resilience now, is what he taught me then.
Best of all, his awe and wonder on seeing wild creatures and wild spaces - even in urban areas - never waned. He was the first person I'd call after seeing a wild animal on one of my bike rides, hikes, or snowshoeing treks; deer, egret, fox, hawk, heron, owl, snake, turkey, turtle... it didn't matter which it was, he'd be as excited as I was to know that these creatures were so close to us.
So thanks, dad, for teaching me to see the beauty of the natural world around us; to stop to appreciate it, and to share that wonder with others.
That was, after all, the inspiration for "Watercolours on Two Wheels"; the stunning moments of nature that I get to see while biking around Montréal Island.

One of my favourite quotations is also among the most misquoted or only partially quoted. You've likely heard Alexander Graham Bell's expression "When one door closes another door opens", but that wasn't his entire statement. His full comment was:
"When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us."

In early 2016, I had the absolute pleasure of finding my dream job; a role that combined my recently-earned graduate degree in bioethics with healthcare philanthropy, ethical financial and organizational governance, and a good dose of corporate training and development - building on my military experience as an officer-instructor.
Within several months I was diagnosed with a rare disease, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) or Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) as it had previously been known. Both an autoimmune disease a neuro-inflammatory condition, CRPS primarily affected my right hand and arm, causing issues with the bones, joints, and skin. There was localized oedema or swelling, when my fingers would balloon out like giant sausages. The skin over this area would change colour, from almost pale blue to dark purple, while the skin temperature changed from cold to hot. Red stripes would appear on the skin, over each of my finger joints, and the joints or knuckles became rigid as adhesions seemed to form within them.
If this all sounds painful, it was. It still is, really. The scientifically-validated McGill Pain Index (MPI), used in hospitals and healthcare centers around the world, rates CRPS pain as being more severe than childbirth, kidney stones, or even the amputation of a digit - a finger or toe - without anaesthetic.
Unlike those pain-causing events, though, CRPS pain continues; as high-impact of severe chronic pain. I was vomiting from pain at work, several times each day. I'd carry ziploc bags with me, as I couldn't always make it to a washroom before vomiting. I finally began secretly fasting each day, until I got home from work in the evening, to avoid vomiting in our carpeted office space. There were also some full-body effects of CRPS, like extreme fatigue, and other hand and arm problems like spasms and tremors.
All that time, I hadn't wanted anyone to know how badly I was doing, physically, because I didn't want to stop working - I adored my job.
Looking back, I realize that this approach wasn't sustainable, but I never really got the chance to find better ways to adapt to working with CRPS.
By the end of 2018 I'd begun to experience cognitive issues; problems with my memory and speech were most obvious. Like the time I kept saying "congratulations" instead of "condolences" at a funeral, or "elephants of" rather than "elements of" in a presentation that I was giving at work. Once I found myself outside the door of my home, holding a key in my hand, but unable to figure out how to get inside.
Scary stuff, absolutely terrifying to be honest. Soon after that I was diagnosed with a Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), resulting from the neuro-inflammatory aspect of CRPS. At that point I had no choice but to stop working, to abandon the career that I adored and had worked hard to build.

When that door closed, I took Alexander Graham Bell's sentiment to heart and vowed not to look "so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us."
With my background in healthcare I soon found myself involved in chronic pain patient advocacy, volunteering for projects as a Patient Partner, and raising awareness of chronic pain - which affects an estimated one in five adults in Canada.
Although my MCI requires much more time for reading or writing, and frequent 'brain breaks', I'm still able to help others. Instead of only seeing the closed door of my career, I set my sights on finding out what I might still be able to do.
It wasn't easy, and at first I constantly overestimated my abilities and then had to scale back - which was tremendously discouraging.
But I eventually found a level at which I could volunteer without worsening my cognitive issues.

After reading research on the benefits of art and creativity for both pain and the brain in 2021, I chose to tackle my lifelong dream of learning to paint - with watercolours... often described by artists as the most difficult medium to master.
At the tike, to be clear, I couldn't draw a stick-figure! During the pandemic I immersed myself in live-virtual watercolour classes, to the extent that my MCI permitted, many of which I've continued to this day. And I almost immediately began using my artworks & experiments to raise the of chronic pain, through my Art Despite Pain #artdespitepain initiative.

I joined art associations, took in-person classes and workshops once lockdowns ended, and considered my college and university art history classes in a new light.
Three years on, I've won a national art award, first prize in a City of Montréal art contest (amateur watercolour and gouache category), and my paintings have appeared in more than 30 group exhibitions.
Several paintings that I've donated to charity events have been sold, and two are part of the art collection of a health research centre in Québec City.

Tomorrow will mark another milestone in my art adventure, a door that would have remained closed to me had I focused only on what I could no longer do - on the door than had closed.
My first solo art show opens tomorrow! "Watercolours on Two Wheels" features pieces originating from my cycling around western Montréal Island; plein-air paintings using my bike-as-easel set-up, and studio watercolours based on sketches done during my cycling rest breaks.
A mix of florals, landscapes, waterscapes, and wildlife, to reflect the beauty and diversity of this area; farms, historic buildings, lakes, nature parks, rivers, streams, and even a vineyard!

This solo show will continue through June 21, 2024 at the MCLL Lounge in McGill University's School of Continuing Studies, across the street from the University's main campus. The MCLL, by the way, is the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning:
680 Sherbrooke West, Suite 229, Montréal
(next to the McCord Museum)
Mon-Thu 0900 to 1700
Fridays    0900 to 1500
Closed weekends & evenings.

(posted on 8 Apr 2024)

I usually post "In the News" stories on Sunday nights, but made an exception this week because of the eclipse today.
My husband and I had been planning for this natural phenomenon for quite a while, ever since we realized that our area would be in the "path of totality"; that, if the weather was good, we'd be able to experience the total eclipse.
We blocked our calendars, ordered eclipse glasses from a recommended vendor, and started scouting out good viewpoints within cycling distance of our home.
We decided on the highest point along a paved cycling path, in the middle of a clearing and well away from streetlights or the lights on commercial buildings. As a bonus, we'd have a large forest behind us so could hear whether the birds changed their calls.
This spot worked out perfectly, and the wispy clouds didn't block our views at all. We were happy to have brought warmer clothing, but hadn't expected the temperature to drop as much as it did. My husband brought a thermometer, so we were able to see the temperature drop by 12 degrees centigrade - and quickly ended up wearing all the extra layers of clothing in our bike-packs.
Among all the 'special effects' created by the total eclipse, I thought the "diamond ring" effect was the most impressive. The photo below was taken with my phone's camera; the actual event was absolutely incredible.
There was also a 360-degree sunset, or a sunset effect all around us, which was spectacular.
The bird calls did change, although only during the period of darkness; the colder temperature and rapid rise in humidity stayed long after the entire eclipse had ended.
While waiting for the eclipse to begin, I did some pencil-sketching of the nearby forest. Once the moon started progressively blocked the the sun, I started creating quick watercolour sketches of the different phases - just for fun.

This quick watercolour sketch shows the moon covering about 20% of the sun - viewed with eclipse glasses but then painted without them; standing with my back to the sun.

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