Sandra Woods
Art despite pain

In the news

Four weeks from now I'll be carefully packing several large boxes, each containing five of my framed watercolour paintings.
These boxes will then be hand-delivered, by me and my sweetheart, to the School of Continuing Studies at McGill University.
We'll then be on hand to help hang a new art exhibition at the School's MCLL Lounge; my first solo show.
As an emerging artist, this is rather exciting for me.
Not only do I have the opportunity to select the paintings and choose the frames (from my own collection of gallery frames), I've also been granted permission to curate this exhibition.
That means deciding where to position each watercolour, in relation to all the others, within the constraints of the hanging system already in place in this gallery space.
So this weekend I played what looked like a bizarre - and rather large - game of Tic Tac Toe, across two rows of picture-shelves that my sweetheart had installed for me.
I arranged and rearranged the selected paintings for almost an hour, to come up with a layout that represented my aims for this show.
The exhibition title is "Watercolours on Two Wheels", and it has two different goals.
The first is to highlight the natural beauty of Montréal Island, by featuring paintings of scenes that I've encountered while cycling through farms, forests, and nature preserves, and along four separate waterways.
The show will include at least one plein-air watercolour sketch, completed while I was resting during a bike ride.
The others will be studio paintings that originated from sketches or studies I did while cycling, or the occasional photo I took when a bird or animal was moving too quickly for me to sketch it.
This brings us to the second goal of "Watercolours on Two Wheels"; the reason I stop to paint or sketch during my bike rides.
I live with two rare diseases, CRPS and FMD. The latter is more or less asymptomatic, and easy to ignore. The former, however, completely changed my life in 2016.
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), formerly called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), is an odd mix of autoimmune disorder and neuroinflammatory condition
What this means, in brief, is that its symptoms range from localized to full-body issues.
And, as its name implies, this disease is known for causing severe pain.
My right hand and arm experience several types of chronic pain (mostly in the bones, joints, nerves, and skin), joint rigidity, sensitivity (to temperature changes, touch, vibrations, and more), spasms, and tremors.
The full-body symptoms include autoimmune fatigue, and even the Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) that ended my career in bioethics and healthcare five years ago.
Although I've been an outdoor sports enthusiast all my life, these rare diseases mean that I've had to adapt my activities.
One of the ways I've done that, to keep cycling, is to ride mostly with only my left hand on the bars - and only in low-traffic areas.
I've also given up my racing-style road bike, using only the heavier and more stable commuter-style bicycle - with a pack-rack - that I'd used for fair weather bike-commuting to work.
Another adaptation has been to take a long rest stop on rides of more than 30 km (almost 20 miles), to let my CRPS-affected right hand and arm recover from the vibrations of the wheels on the road.
Those long rest stops were the catalyst for my creation of a bike-as-easel set up for watercolour painting, and for my plein-air painting adventures while cycling.
With strangers frequently stopping to see what I'm doing, this has become another opportunity for my Art Despite Pain #ArtDespitePain initiative; raising awareness of chronic pain, often through one on one conversations, and encouraging others living with pain to consider creative pursuits as pain-management techniques.
After all, I began learning to draw and paint in 2021 as DIY movement-therapy for my right hand and arm, as brain-plasticity or neuroplasticity training for my MCI, and as a way to distract my brain from pain.
The image below is the Exhibition Introduction, which will hang beside my paintings, focusing on this second goal of the exhibition.

"Watercolours on Two Wheels" will be presented April 15 through June 21, 2024, in the The MCLL Lounge at McGill University in Montréal. The MCLL is the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning, housed in the University's School of Continuing Studies across the street from the main campus.
The exhibition will be open Mondays through Thursdays from 0900 to 1700 and on Fridays from 0900 to 1500, at 680 Sherbrooke Street West, Suite 229.

(posted on 3 Mar 2024)

Thanks so much to the folks at the ELAN arts network, for including two of my upcoming events in the March 2024 edition of ELANews!

This organization is involved in all aspects of the arts in Québec; creative writing, documentaries, drama, film, music & voice, photo- and videography, screenwriting, songwriting, theater, the visual arts, and much more.

So it's great to be featured in their monthly arts news, and fantastic to have two different events included!

One of these is my solo art exhibition, from April 15 through June 21 this year; "Watercolours on Two Wheels", at McGill University's MCLL Lounge. It's my first solo show, so I'm really looking forward to it.

The second upcoming event for me is that I should be appearing in one episode of an award-winning TV show in March or April 2024. "You Can't Ask That" - filmed for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) and the accessible AMI-tv network - is about to launch its third season, which will include an episode on chronic pain.

When I was first contacted, out of the blue by a member of the show's research team, I thought it was a prank! But it turned out to be real, and filming of the Montréal arm of this national show took place in February. It was a lot of fun, and I'm still surprised that I wasn't at all nervous.

One of the reasons for which they reached out to me was my Art Despite Pain #ArtDespitePain initiative for chronic pain awareness. Along with my activities as a volunteer Patient Partner; co-authoring pain research papers, collaborating on educational projects for healthcare professionals, giving talks to university health sciences students, mentoring others who live with persistent pain through a still-new program at the McGill University Health Centre hospital network, and serving on committees of organizations focused on chronic pain or pain research.

All of my volunteer activities sometimes seem a bit overwhelming, in particular when several different projects - with different groups - have deadlines at the same time, but all of these volunteer projects are important to me, because I know so many othes with chronic pain who are unable to actively participate.

So for as long as I'm able, in spite of my CRPS-related 'mild cognitive impairment' and two rare diseases, I'll keep at it. Raising awareness of chronic pain, and trying to help improve the situation for those of us who live with it.



After running an Instagram poll, obtaining comments from several local artists during the February meeting of the Artists Circle of the West Island (thank you!), and getting feedback from the organizer of the exhibition, I'm thrilled to show you the final poster for my upcoming solo show! There's also a bilingual version, with French first as required under Québec law for businesses, but as I'm not a business I've opted to share the shorter unilingual version here.

The show will be fully accessible, with no entry fee or appointments required. There's an elevator to the 2nd floor of the building, although you may have to ask the information desk staff to 'unlock' or 'wake' it up - apparently the elevator sometimes becomes inactive because the escalator tends to be more popular.
The MCLL Lounge at McGill University is open Monday through Thursday from 0900 to 1700 and on Fridays from 0900 to 1500. If you'll be in the downtown Montréal area between April 15 and June 21, 2024, feel free to drop in for a visit. I won't be there every day, as it's a three-month show, but will definitely stop by anytime I'm in the city-centre area.

"Watercolours on Two Wheels" will be presented in the The MCLL Lounge of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning, housed in the University's School of Continuing Studies. The displayed paintings will all be in some way associated with my bike rides around the northwestern area of Montréal Island. There will be some plein-air pieces, painted during my cycling rest-stops in nature preserves and waterfront parks, as well as studio watercolours based on plein-air sketches completed during my rides.

By next week I should be able to share with you the Exhibition Introduction, which will be posted at the entrance to my solo show. That poster-type document is being prepared by the event organizer, using their own specific format, with a photo of one of the watercolours that I've decided to include.

As you can probably tell, I'm already quite excited about this; my first solo show. I've been a bit surprised at how much preparation is required so far in advance, but then again it is almost March. 

Stay tuned for more about this and other upcoming art shows, as well as for my Rare Disease Day activities and artwork for this year's Leap Year February 29th event. This is important to me, as I began learning to paint and to sketch in 2021 as a direct result of my first rare disease. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS, formerly called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy or RSD) is an autoimmune and neuro-inflammatory condition, and I turned to art creation as a form of movement-therapy and pain-management for my severely-affected right hand and arm - and as brain plasticity or neuroplasticity training for my CRPS-related mild cognitive impairment.

Some of this will be highlighted in the Exhibition Introduction, as part of my Art Despite Pain (#ArtDespitePain) chronic pain awareness initiative; using my art to raise awareness of CRPS and other pain conditions.
Thanks so much for stopping by, and have a lovely weekend!

(posted on 18 Feb 2024)

Something exciting is coming up! My first solo show as an emerging artist is slated to begin in just two months, on April 15, 2024.
The exhibition, "Watercolours on Two Wheels", will be presented in the The MCLL Lounge at McGill University, here in Montréal. The MCLL is the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning, housed in the University's School of Continuing Studies.
Founded by Royal Charter in 1821, this University was named for James McGill; the Scottish merchant whose 1813 bequest established what was then called the University of McGill College.
This University has been an important part of Montréal's history, but also of mine. McGill is where I began my undergraduate degree in the late 80s, and where I later completed a Certificate in Human Resources Management - with honours and the prize for Top Student in the program for our graduating year.

I even had the honour of attending a reception at the spectacular McGill Faculty Club, with my husband and parents, for that award ceremony. Originally called Baumgarten House, this extraordinary 1886 building was aquired by McGill in the 1920s.
My Scottish grandmother was very proud when I was accepted to McGill, with an academic scholarship, and told me that she'd begun secretly teaching me to say "mac-gill" when I was a toddler - because she had hoped even then that her first grandchild would someday study at what she called  "Canada’s Scottish University".
She'd have been absolutely thrilled that my first solo exhibition will take place at McGill, and I'm quite pleased about it myself!

"Watercolours on Two Wheels" will feature pieces originating from my bicycle rides around the western portion of Montréal Island. Because of chronic pain in my right hand and arm, and other symptoms of my two rare diseases, I now need to take rest stops during my bike rides. Rather than viewing these stops as a waste of time, I pack watercolour painting or sketching supplies into my bike-pack and seek out natural areas accessible only by bike or hike. Using my bicycle as my easel, I paint or sketch - usually for about an hour - while my husband continues his ride.
When he's ready for a snack, about halfway through his 75 to 100 km rides, we'll coordinate by text message to meet up on our bikes. With several cafés in the area, we can always find somewhere to stop together.

This exhibition will include pieces that I've painted en plein-air (outdoors), with my bike-as-easel set-up, as well as studio paintings based on sketches that I've done while cycling. A mix of florals, landscapes, waterscapes, and wildlife, these paintings reflect the beauty and diversity of this area; farms, historic buildings, lakes, nature parks, rivers, streams, and even a vineyard.
This is my first draft of the exhibition poster, and you may notice that it doesn't show any paintings! I'm trying to decide whether it'd be more interesting, and more appropriate, to instead show how I use my bicycle as an easel.
I'll have to wait for the opinion of the event organizer at McGill, but wanted to share this with you today while it's 'hot off the press' so to speak.
Thanks so much for stopping by, and stay tuned for more information about this upcoming art show.


(posted on 11 Feb 2024)

I've been having fun this week, in advance of the SuperBowl American Football championship game tonight, following all the "Superb Owl" memes on social media. This annual trend began because of reports several years ago that typing errors had led to a spike in online searches for "superb owl" rather than the intended "Super Bowl".

"Instead of Super Bowl information, one small typo later and your search results are filled with owl content instead.
And we’d like to encourage you to lean into the error.
Because owls truly are “superb.” 
These birds are a far cry from football, but over the years the trend has gained significant popularity.
So much so, that many people flood the internet with photos of owls before the Super Bowl each year. (And you know what a gathering of owls is called, right? A parliament.)
This internet phenomenon puts these feathery creatures in the spotlight, which ultimately aids awareness, said Matt Williams, director of conservation with the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
“I say anything that helps get the message out about the importance of conservation is a good thing”
"Owl photos are flooding the internet ahead of the Super Bowl. Here’s why", by Megan Marples, CNN, 09 Feb 2024

So in honour of the 2024 SuperBowl tonight, here's my favourite watercolour sketch of an owl; one I painted last year.
Happy Superb Owl day to you, wherever you are!

(posted on 4 Feb 2024)

My Art Despite Pain initiative, for chronic pain awareness, has led to some unexpected outcomes since it began in 2021.
Last year #ArtDespitePain was profiled in a two-page feature in a national healthcare magazine, and in the newsletter of a national pain science organization. Then my series of daily watercolour *pain*tings in September, for International Pain Awareness Month, was highlighted by the same organization.

But nothing has been quite so extraordinary as today's unexpected result of my Art Despite Pain activities; being asked to participate in a TV show!
I spent the morning being filmed for an episode of a documentary series at Pixcom, an award-winning Montreal-based production company.

This episode is on chronic pain, for the television series You Can't Ask That; winner of the 2021 Canadian Screen Award for Best Factual Series (CBC; Productions Pixcom Inc.; Producers: Izabel Chevrier, Nicola Merola, Charles Lafortune, Sylvie Desrochers, and Jacquelin Bouchard). Via

It's "a documentary series that confronts prejudices and breaks down taboos in our society in an authentic and relatable way...
As each episode features a variety of people who have faced similar challenges, the audience is given a better understanding of the range of experiences these individuals have faced...
Every episode of You Can't Ask That features individuals who sit in front of a camera and candidly answer questions submitted by an anonymous public.
Looking directly down the camera lens, the answers may be funny, serious or sad, but they are delivered honestly and candidly." Via AMI tv

"As each episode features one specific disability, but a variety of people, the audience is given a better understanding of the range of experiences these individuals have faced.
Answers are intercut from one protagonist to another as the editing highlights effective comparisons between different stories and perspectives." Via

Season 2 of You Can't Ask That "was filmed in Montreal and Toronto in winter 2019, and is produced by Pixcom Productions for CBC in association with AMI." Via

There was then a break due to the pandemic, with Season 3 scheduled to air in the early spring of 2024.
This Season of the series will include the episode filmed today, on chronic pain, for which we'll hopefully start seeing some trailers and outakes by the end of this month.

It's absolutely incredible that my Art Despite Pain initiative has led to my participation in this television series, so I'm thankful that I set aside the doubts I had at the outset - and simply 'went with my gut' on this. There's no financial benefit, no advertising or promotion in Art Despite Pain; it's meant purely to increase awareness of pain conditions and persistent pain.
And I can't think of a better way to raise awareness than to have chronic pain featured in an episode of this award-winning TV series.

"You Can’t Ask asks the misunderstood, judged, or stigmatised people in society, the questions you've always wanted to know the answers to.
It's about breaking down stereotypes and offering genuine insight into the lives of people who live with labels." Via CBC Gem;

Best of all, the "show's format is simple: naive, bold and/or uncomfortable questions are posed and responses — given direct to camera — are raw, enlightening and often surprising.
Audacious, touching and funny, this series is guaranteed to challenge everyone’s assumptions about life with a disability." Via CBC Radio-Canada:

I'll post details and links here, once the episode on chronic pain and the rest of Season 3 are available for online viewing.
As they say; "Stay tuned for more information"!

(posted on 28 Jan 2024)

My favourite recent art news story isn't from a gallery or museum, but rather about a local university-hospital centre:

"Matisse, Hockney and Picasso are names you expect to see on gallery or museum walls in Montreal, not where doctors are hard at work.
"It is one of the largest public collections in Quebec, especially for a hospital," said Alexandra Kirsh, McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) RBC Art and Heritage Centre Curator.
The MUHC Foundation owns approximately two thousand art pieces and medical objects.
The collection is then given to the MUHC hospital and distributed throughout the Glen site.
There are pieces dating back to the hospital's foundation in 1821.
"It's very important for us to provide a healing environment that is peaceful, and it is demonstrated that art actually contributes to reducing stress, reducing pain," said MUHC Foundation president and CEO Marie-Helene Laramee."

Look for works in the video by David Hockey on a pale gray wall, by Henri Matisse on a yellow one, by Pablo Picasso (appropriately) on blue, and much more! The images in this post are 'fuzzy' as they're screenshots of moving video - to encourage you to go view the actual footage.

As a local emerging artist and CRPS rare disease patient who uses artwork to raise awareness of chronic pain, through my Art Despite Pain [#ArtDespitePain] initiative, I was happy that this piece mentions research showing that art can reduce stress and pain - even within hospital environments.

A link to the video and written report, by Videojournalist Olivia O'Malley for CTV News Montreal (Anchored by Mutsumi Takahashi), are available at:

(posted on 21 Jan 2024)

If you've subscribed to my seasonal newsletter, Studio Scenes, the winter edition should be landing in your inbox right about now. If you haven't received it yet, check your "junk" or "spam" folder.

Although I try to send these within about a week of each Equinox or Solstice, the winter edition generally isn't released until after the holiday period - in any case, who has the time to read an eNewsletter during the festive period?

Best described as a backstage pass to my art studio, Studio Scenes provides a bit more detail than what's possible in social media or even here on the website. It's a glimpse behind-the-scenes, with photos, and an opportunity to read about the inspirations for my current artworks. The newsletter mentions which art books, magazines, and articles I’m reading, along with information about upcoming exhibitions and events.

The winter 2024 edition of Studio Scenes gave a hint that there's some big news coming, but I can't yell you quite yet what that is... so stay tuned!

In the meantime, I'm continuing my January sketch-a-day challenge, completing one pencil sketch each day of an item inside my home. Still life objects are fairly unusual subjects for me,  but make excellent practice for honing observational skills - which are important for my preferred landscapes, florals, and wildlife scenes.

I'll admit that I'm finding plenty of natural objects or even wildlife-related items around my home, to sketch. Like this beautiful feather, from a Red-tailed hawk that I had stopped to observe while cycling this past summer. I call it my feather-treasure,  and carefully followed the instructions to clean it - with repeated stints in the feeezer, to preserve it safely.

This is my first attempt at sketching a feather, and I'm quite happy with it.


(posted on 14 Jan 2024)

This is another of my daily sketches, as part of my January self-challenge to start the year with a creative boost.
Hopefully this looks more like an antique-style plush fox than a teddy bear!
And yes, the ears on this furry fox really are that lopsided.
I've realized fairly quickly - from doing these daily sketches - that many of the antique or antique-style items in my home are really quite 'lumpy' and asymmetrical.
It makes them hard to capture believably in just lines, in pencil sketches, but it's also part of their charm.
My inspiration for the sketch I'm posting today, and for bringing home this little fox many years ago, was the Fox in "The Little Prince"; the marvelous book written by French military pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
It was the Fox who spoke some of my favourite lines in this book:
"On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur.
L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux."
"One sees clearly only with the heart.
What is essential is invisible to the eye."

(posted on 7 Jan 2024)

Many people who aren't painters imagine that the most important part of a painting is its colour scheme.
Which colours to use, though, is often the easiest decision to make when planning a new painting.
What's truly crucial, even for abstract or non-representational work, are the choices of composition & values - the areas of dark, mid-toned, and light areas in a painting.
The values are what create a pattern or rhythm in an artwork, what leads thevete around a composition.
So I like to think of my initial composition, often sketched direction onto my watercolour paper, as the foundation of a representational painting.
The values are the wall studs, ceiling beams, roof trusses, and other supporting structures that will make the scene real - to make a two-dimensional work seem believable, as a representation of a three-dimensional space.
The pigment colours I choose at that point are almost irrelevant, as long as the values - the areas of dark, pale, and in-between - are fairly accurate.
That's why it's so important for me to practice basic sketching, even if my goal is to paint loose or impressionistic watercolours... to train my brain to 'see' the light and dark areas of a subject or scene.
These quick-draw sketches also help me to more quickly capturing scenes when I'm painting en plein-air (outside).
An easy, or at least convenient, way to improve one's basic sketching skills is to get into the habit of sketching something every day.
During the warmer months, I never have to think about doing daily sketches, as I'm out plein-air sketching every day for fun and as on-site preparation for my plein-air paintings - usually off the back of my bicycle.
Once the weather gets too cold for me to sketch outdoors, though, I start forgetting to sketch something each day.
Then there's the busyness leading up to (Canadian) Thanksgiving, Halloween, and the winter holidays, so by the time New Year's Day rolls around I'll often realize that I haven't done a daily sketch in weeks.
So I now have something of a repeating New Year's challenge, from the first day of each year; to get back into the habit of daily sketching.
These are some of my first daily sketches from this year, that force me to use my CRPS-affected right hand and arm - and to apply the brain-plasticity aspects of seeing and sketching, as part of my pain-management plan for neuropathic chronic pain.
It's also rather relaxing to focus on something - other than a phone, tablet, or computer screen - for a little while each day.
Have YOU sketched something today?

older news items...