Sandra Woods
Art despite pain

In the news

(posted on 17 Sep 2023)

I spent the day preparing for an upcoming art fair, creating detailed labels for thirty or so of my most recent watercolours. These were painted during the spring and summer months so far, mostly en plein-air (outdoors), often done off the back of my bicycle during rest stops. There are also a few rainy-day studio paintings in the mix, as we’ve had quite a bit of rain in Montréal since the snow melted.
Why paint while riding my bike? I’ve loved cycling since childhood, and recall going for long rides with my dad when a new paved bike-path opened along the Lachine Canal in the mid-70s. We’d ride from our home to the start of the Canal, take that new bike-route to Old Montréal, then ride back again; about 50 km (or 32 miles for my American friends) round-trip, when I was ten.
Several years ago, when I was first diagnosed with a rare disease that significantly affects my right hand and arm, one specialist physician told me that he didn’t think I’d be able to bike again. I didn’t reply to that comment, but instead thought to myself: “I’m going to prove you wrong”. And I have.
One change is that I now have to take rest stops or breaks more often when I’m cycling, but I’ve turned that to my advantage by packing my plein-air painting supplies into my bike-pack and saddlebags. Instead of getting frustrated whenever I have to interrupt my ride to rest, I take the time to appreciate the beautiful areas around me. And I can always find something to paint along my routes; flowers, forests, historic buildings, waterfronts, wildlife…
These paintings, along with many others, will be on display at a weekend art fair next month; in the lakefront town of Baie d'Urfé, on the southern shore of Montréal Island. The 2023 "Gathering of Artisans" will take place indoors in two municipal buildings, The Red Barn and The Curling Club, to raise funds for the local curling club – founded in 1959. My artwork will be on display in The Red Barn, which is a lovely community centre rather than an active farm building.
If you’re in the Montréal area, feel free to stop by and say hello during this event. As it'll be just a couple of days before Halloween, don’t be surprised if I’m wearing one of my many costumes on each of these days – and most likely my better half will be 'dressed up' as well while he’s helping me there.
October 28 and 29, 2023, at The Red Barn, 20609 Lakeshore Road, Baie-D'Urfé, Québec:
   - 1000-1600 Saturday
   - 1000-1500 Sunday
Please drop by to support local artisans and artists, as well as the local curling club, if you’re in the area. And if you’re too far away to visit, I’ll post photos here after the event.


(posted on 9 Sep 2023)

To mark international Pain Awareness Month, I've challenged myself to create a painting-a-day series of thirty watercolour works - each one representing pain in some way. This is all part of my #ArtDespitePain initiative, treating my art practice as a pain-management tool and then using the resulting paintings to raise awareness of chronic pain.

For this series I've chosen to give each painting a Latin title, to reflect the language commonly used in medicine and healthcare. Here are a few of the resulting paintings from this week, with some in a much more abstract style than what I've been doing recently.

If you'd like to follow along with the daily paintings feel free to follow me over on Instagram, at @sandrawoods_creative_arts, with the caveat that I tend to post each photo late in the evening.

September 1: "Amorpho in rosea" ("Amorphous in pink"); The first in this series of paintings, showing chronic pain as the nebulous face of a monster because persistent pain can be so difficult to describe or to pin down.

September 2: "Dolor draconis" ("Pain dragon"); Imagining chronic pain as the face of a dragon, one that might hopefully be slayed someday.

September 4:"Nervi ignei" ("Fiery nerves"); Imaginary nerves, engulfed in flames... Dedicated to all the folks who live with persistent burning sensations, anywhere in the body

A fun art-related "on this date" memory from last year: I was quoted in an international art magazine, the very aptly named Artists Magazine, from The Artists' Network! - pretty cool for an emerging (new) artist.

And fantastic timing for today, the start of International Pain Awareness Month. Great timing because my art practice began in 2021 specifically because of my chronic pain. I was struck with CRPS rare disease "out of the blue" in 2016 (to use an artistic or colour expression)...

CRPS causes severe pain in the bones, joints, nerves, and skin of my right hand & arm, as well as full-body symptoms including fatigue and the 'mild cognitive impairment' that stole my bioethics career at the end of 2018.

How can one rare illness do all that? CRPS has both autoimmune & neuroinflammatory impacts, like a truly horrid two-for-one discount! 

On the positive side, I decided in 2021 to try something that I'd dreamt of doing since childhood. To learn to paint, with watercolours - the most difficult medium! - and to use the results for chronic pain awareness.

That was the start of my Art Despite Pain (#ArtDespitePain) initiative. I couldn't even draw a stick figure a few years ago, so it's incredible to me that I've already won awards for my paintings... 

And it was absolutely perfect that my 1st award for a painting was from the inaugural Art Awards of the Canadian Pain Society (CPS).

So today, to mark the start of Pain Awareness Month, I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who has encouraged me on this wild ride of Art Despite Pain.

(posted on 28 Aug 2023)

Living with a rare disease means having frequent medical appointments, lab tests, and other hospital visits. As a former bioethics professional, I have to admit that I'd become quite used to these kinds of clinical and soulless spaces.

But now – as an emerging artist – I can't help but notice how visually unwelcoming or even intimidating these spaces are, for many patients. So I'm always happy to see attempts being made to change this, like today.

Just look at the stunning results of this "intervention" or “makeover” by the Art for Healing Foundation at the Queen Elizabeth Health Complex in Montréal, housed in a former hospital. This space has been transformed into a much more welcoming place, by turning the corridors and waiting areas almost into small art gallery areas. This was definitely an enormous improvement on the previous bare walls and occasional peeling healthcare posters.

Who knows, maybe one day some of my paintings will find their way onto the walls of local hospitals or health centres. In the meantime, I'm a member of the National Organization for Arts in Health (NOAH) in the United States - sadly not yet in Canada - and learning baout how the arts can help transform healthcare environments for the better. And I'm continuing with my own #ArtDespitePain initiative, for chronic pain advocacy and awareness.

Speaking of which, I noticed today that the elastics in my dynamic splint for Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) seem to echo the lines running across the clouds in the closest painting in this photo...

(posted on 20 Aug 2023)

Last month I’d mentioned that several of my watercolour paintings would appear in upcoming issues of two different magazines, within two different pieces on how my art practice is intertwined with my chronic pain advocacy. This is a real honour for me, not only as a Patient Partner and Patient Advocate for chronic pain research and care, but also as an emerging artist.

I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to tell you that the first of these two pieces has now been published! It’s included in the annual ‘open access’ issue of OT Now magazine, published by the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists (CAOT). ‘Open access’ means that this issue of the magazine is open to all readers, anywhere in the world: “These annual issues/articles are open-access and free to the public, showcasing the Canadian occupational therapy practice to a wide variety of readers”.

To read the piece, touching on how I use my artwork to raise awareness of chronic pain and to share the benefits of creative activities as pain management tools, click on this link to the CAOT website or cut and paste this this link into your browser:
Then select the July 2023 issue entitled “Valuing lived experiences”, and simply scroll down to page 8 or look for the yellow flower with the headline “#ArtDespitePain”.

The Managing Editor of OT Now and her team did a fantastic job for this one, and came up with an unusual and artistic layout for this feature; the image below is only a partial view of the entire piece, the full spread is even better.

After you take a look at the “#ArtDespitePain” piece, showing several of my paintings, be sure to read the next article: “The Two-way Street of Collaboration: An Interview with Annette McKinnon”. Annette is a knowledgeable and passionate Patient Advocate for Canadians living with arthritis, and someone with whom I’ve connected through many virtual healthcare events.

When I first decided to try to learn to paint and sketch at the start of 2021, I had three goals – all of which were intertwined with my patient advocacy for chronic pain and for my own rare disease; Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). The first of these goals was to use painting and sketching as movement therapy for my right hand and arm, which are significantly affected by numerous symptoms of CRPS. The second goal was to treat skills-learning for art as a type of brain-plasticity training for my ‘mild cognitive impairment’ – also caused by CRPS; I was hoping to prevent any further decline in my cognitive function over time. The last goal was to use my artwork as part of my chronic pain awareness and advocacy activities.

The reaction has been so much more positive than I could ever have imagined, from art contests and exhibitions to a feature in a local (Montréal) newspaper, a feature on the website of a non-profit organization, and now in a national magazine. Thanks so much to everyone who has commented or joined the chronic pain conversations across social media on #ArtDespitePain, and to all those who have helped me along the way!

I haven't done much watercolour painting since my dad's unexpected death in mid-July but I'm now easing my way back into it, as a way to help me with my grief ...
In a similar way to how I've been using my art practice to help me deal with the symptoms and other impacts of a rare chronic pain condition called CRPS - and particularly with the CRPS-related "mild cognitive impairment" that stole my bioethics career at the end of 2018.
That was the catalyst for my Art Despite Pain initiative, using my artwork to raise awareness of chronic pain conditions, while also benefiting from painting and sketching as movement-therapy for my right hand/arm, and as brain-plasticity training to hopefully prevent any worsening of my cognitive impairment over time.
This morning I only painted a few first washes, over pale sketches that I'd already drawn onto 100% cotton paper ...
But it was definitely therapeutic - in sooooo many senses of the word!
As I don't have any new paintings or work-in-progress to share, here are some of the "memories" that have popped up in my social media over the past little while.
Enjoy this flash from the past!

(posted on 6 Aug 2023)

Two years ago I changed my profile photo on my social media, to one of me wearing an orange sweater - because orange is the colour of CRPS awareness for my rare disease and chronic pain condition...
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), formerly called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), is the cause of the 'mild cognitive impairment' that stole my beloved bioethics career at the end of 2018.
This condition has also caused localized problems with my right hand and arm. These include bone and joint issues, and pain in both bones and joints. Also allodynia, an extreme sensitivity of the skin. Then there's the neuropathic or nerve pain (imagine Shingles pain, combined with both burning and frostbite), along with spasms, tremors, and more.
There are some full-body symptoms of CRPS as well, because it's considered to have both autoimmune and neuro-inflammatory effects.
That's how this one rare disease can cause so many different symptoms - in addition to chronic neuropathic pain - from full-body fatigue, to cognitive challenges, to spasms... and a long list of other issues.
It's a nasty disease, that's often PREVENTABLE with rapid diagnosis and treatment within the first 3 months.
Unfortunately it took me almost 3 months of fighting with one 'gatekeeper' specialist physician to even get a diagnosis - because he actively prevented me from getting a second opinion.
So now I raise awareness and advocate for other patients, so that this hopefully won't happen to anyone else!
This is how Art Despite Pain (#ArtDespitePain) came to be, using my art practice and resulting watercolour paintings to help raise awareness of chronic pain.

Earlier this month the Cornell Lab of Ornithology launched a contest, to win an enrollment in their newest online course The Wonderful World of Hummingbirds:
This “self-paced course features instructional videos, photo galleries, and interactive learning tools that reveal new dimensions of hummingbird life. Experience hummingbirds’ flashy transformations and discover the feather structures behind the magic, get up to speed on how they fly, and see how their bizarre tongues work. You’ll learn how to attract and protect them, plus receive special photography tips. This course is designed for anyone interested in hummingbirds and delivers a fun, science-infused look at these “flying jewels”.”

Although not about painting these gorgeous birds per se, any learning that helps me to understand an animal’s anatomy and behaviour will help me to better portray it – in my own way – with my watercolours.

Last winter I participated in a weekend watercolour painting workshop on owls, and was fascinated by how much the positioning of their feathers affects how they reflect light; this is important when trying to paint a realistic or semi-realistic bird.

To participate in this hummingbird course contest, all I had to do was share my own photo or other artwork featuring a hummingbird on social media – and tag the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

We only rarely see hummingbirds this far north, and only one variety; the ruby-throated hummingbird. I’ve never seen one land or settle for long enough to get a decent photo, but last summer a hummingbird visited our gardens over several days and I was able to create a watercolour sketch of its flight path as it flitted among the hosta flowers near our patio. I shared that painting, as my entry into the hummingbird contest.

A few days after tagging them on my “Hummingbird Flight Path” painting, I received a surprise message from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology… my little painting had won an enrollment in their new course.

That weekend, my dad passed away suddenly, so I haven’t had the heart to start this self-paced online course yet – nor to really paint again.

I’m slowly working my way back to my art practice, adding the finishing touches to some recent watercolours. And reorganizing portions of my studio space, something that I tend to do these days whenever I need some time to think.

Once I get back into the swing of things, I look forward to starting this course on hummingbirds – and to fulfilling a promise I made to a distant family member a few months back, to paint a hummingbird for their new home.

Stay tuned for some paintings of hummingbirds, over the next few months.

(posted on 23 Jul 2023)

When my dad passed away this past weekend, we'd been making plans to do a few things together over the summer...
My sweetheart had retired this spring, and he and I had already written up a list of outings with my dad - all dates weather-dependent, of course:
1. Next Thursday, July 27, we were planning a day-trip to Rawdon, to where his family had a summer cottage for decades (and where we spent all our summers 'til 1976).
He and I had talked about this day-trip by phone last Wednesday night, and were meant to finalize our plans last Friday night during a BBQ at our place.. but my dad had already passed by then.
We'd talked about stopping to see Dorwin Falls, the lovely old stone Church where his dad is buried, and the house he rented the summer I was a newborn in the late 1960s.
Then we'd head to his favourite place in Rawdon for French fries, for either a late lunch or an early dinner, depending on what time we'd hit the road;
2. Thursday August 4th we'd go to the beach at Voyageur Provincial Park in Ontario, where he had a season's pass. Depending on the state of my old camping gear, we might stay and camp overnight;
3. August 10th we'd drive to the Long Sault Parkway, near Cornwall (Ontario), for another beach day and maybe another overnight tent-camping stay;
4. Aug 17 my husband and I had planned to take my dad out in our canoe, from the Anse à l'Orme Nature Park onto the Lake of Two Mountains, and paddle to La Petite Plage (the 'hidden beach') for a swim;
5. Aug 24 we'd take my dad to 'our' beach, the one just a few minutes from our home, at the Cap Saint-Jacques Nature Park.
I wish we'd had just a few more weeks with him, one last summer.
Miss you already, dad.

(posted on 16 Jul 2023)

My dad was a guy who loved the outdoors and especially - as a Royal Canadian Navy veteran - the water.
Camping, canoeing, cross-country skiing, cycling, hiking, kayaking, skating, snowshoeing, swimming, walking; he did all this and more.
He passed on this passion for outdoor sports to me, one of the many things for which I'm grateful to him on a daily basis.
This weekend he skated off into the sunset.
There will be a brief service and Visitation on Thursday July 20, 2023:
Rideau Funeral Home
4239 Sources Blvd
Dollard-des-Ormeaux (Montréal)
. 1130-1300 Visitation 
. 1300-1400 Service
. 1400-Family departs for Cemetery
. 1430-1530 Interment and prayers, with Scottish Piper (bagpipes)

The official Obituary should be published on Wednesday, in the Montréal Gazette, and will appear here once it has been posted to their website.

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