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How a Chronically-Ill Artist Continues to Create
Rheumatoid arthritis led textile artist and former college art professor Lou Cabeen to change her preferred media, but she didn't let it dampen her creativity.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) forced artist Lou Cabeen to switch from room-sized, hand-woven textiles to more manageable multi-media art, but the university art professor and artist says she learned a lot from this unexpected detour along her creative journey.
When she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2003, Cabeen, then 50, was an established artist: Her work had been exhibited in places like the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon, and in the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. Cabeen, who was a former associate professor of art at the University of Washington in Seattle, was familiar with the aches and pains of working on large exhibition pieces, but what she was experiencing was different and perplexing. “I had five months of pain before we figured out what it was,” she recalls.
Cabeen had no family history of rheumatoid arthritis, and her blood tests were negative for the condition, so her RA remained a mystery for a while. By the time her doctors finally made the diagnosis, she'd lost 40 percent of her mobility: She felt RA's effects in her shoulders, neck, and hips. Her RA seemed to have been triggered by a respiratory infection she'd picked up internationally, she says.
Making Art and Living With RA
Cabeen began taking RA medication, and learned that certain changes in her diet could also help: it turned out that dairy, gluten, and corn all triggered her symptoms. “By eliminating them, I’ve been able to avoid adding another medication for pain,” she says.
Her new diet challenged her to learn more about food. From reading labels to managing symptoms, RA seemed like a full-time job. As a result, Cabeen stopped doing her artwork for a while. But even after she felt that she had a grip on her health, she realized that she couldn’t continue working on the same scale that she had previously.
RELATED LINK: Portrait of a Painter With Rheumatoid Arthritis
“The physical limitations actually caused me to change the specific media that I worked in,” she says. Before RA, she was weaving room-size textiles on a loom, and some of her pieces involved two football fields worth of hand-woven fabric. The sheer repetition and physicality of that format was impossible with RA.
For a while, she tried to continue projects with the help of students and interns, but eventually she found that it just wasn't satisfying. She came to the realization that she had to set aside the weaving, and embark on a new journey.
Ultimately, she found her new niche as a mixed media artist, working on a smaller scale (18 inches by 48 inches) with found paper, stitched paper, and collage elements that she often turns into books. But Cabeen still had to solve many practical challenges: Because she was doing her own stitching by hand, she had to find light frames and arrange her work area so that she could sit comfortably.
She also learned to pace herself. Her current projects can be as intense and absorbing as her former work, but she can no longer burn the candle at both ends. “Prior to having RA, I would just push through and recover afterwards. That was the biggest part of my learning curve,” she says. For her, the fatigue is harder to bounce back from than the joint pain, and she still has to force herself to take needed breaks.
8 Tips for Artists With RA
These are challenges faced by many people with RA who are artists, says Jane W. McCabe, an occupational therapist and certified aging-in-place specialist in Laguna Hills, California.
McCabe says it’s not likely that RA is caused by repetitive motion, but that certain actions do make the condition worse. “I don’t ever want to tell someone they should stop doing something they love to do,” says McCabe. Instead, she suggested modifications that can keep her artistic patients productive:
- Choose lightweight tools.
- Adjust your workstation so you can sit with elbows propped to paint more easily.
- Wrap tools with a washcloth, rubber tubing, or insulated piping to create thicker handles.
- Use self-opening scissors to reduce cutting fatigue.
- Stretch before you start each work session.
- Schedule your work to take advantage of periods of high energy.
- Use pliers to open caps on paint tubes (coating the opening with petroleum jelly will make them easier to open again later).
- Set an alarm to remind you to take breaks.
“I would encourage all of us with RA to do a simple drawing a day in a sketchbook," Cabeen adds, saying that it's important to stay proactive and flexible with your strategies and artistic pursuits. The art you do today with RA might not be exactly the same or involve the same techniques as the art you did before, but you can still find a way to express yourself creatively.
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