Through Illness to Art

Sponsored by Bob Higginson

Illness may impose a shift in a person’s sense of agency in life. But new possibilities can emerge from within and because of these interruptions. In this blog, artist facilitator Idelle Hammond-Sass describes how the juvenile rheumatoid arthritis she experienced as a child led her to art.


-Ryan Hart


While traveling last fall I fractured my foot and wrist and needed to recuperate for three months. It was physically and mentally challenging. I used a wheelchair and crutch while I healed and made a lot of adjustments to daily life. Seven months later after physical therapy and exercises, I’m mostly healed. Even a simple fracture can impact the routine acts of bathing, cooking, lifting and reaching. While able to be creative about how I had to do things, I missed being able to go down to my art studio, and disliked being so dependent on my spouse. 

This experience brought back memories and feelings from my childhood. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis after experiencing swelling in my knees. My memories of doctor visits include vivid details like looking at New Yorker cartoons, and the wallpaper in the exam rooms. There were cortisone injections, pills and painful syringes to remove fluids. In 2nd grade I was sent to a public school for kids with physical limitations, and there I met and befriended other kids living with even more serious conditions, blindness, hydranencephaly, cerebral palsy. I remember being accepted and making friends, and my reading improved by learning phonics.

Living with J.R.A. and treatment at the time meant I was unable to attend school in 4th and 6th grade, when I stayed home on bedrest. In school I had to sit on the sidelines in gym. When home I missed my friends, my classes, teachers and playing,  and I fell behind in maintaining close friendships while my mother was by necessity my constant companion. My sister seemed to resent my mother’s constant attention and gravitated toward my Dad for approval. Family dynamics altered and impacted our lives for years.

By the time I was in High School I was sent to the office to help run the copy machine instead of gym. Further isolated in that office I withdrew into my own world, reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Throughout, I coped with the isolation of home and limited movement through my interest in art and the ability to indulge great amounts of time to drawing, painting and reading about art and artists. My parents and home school teacher (through the N.Y.C. school system) encouraged me to use my talent to illustrate stories, poems and read magazine articles on contemporary artists in magazines. I drew horses, inspired by their freedom of movement and far away places I could imagine or read about. When later hospitalized for mono in High School, I brought my guitar and art supplies to the hospital. It was a way of staying connected to my identity and continue growing while friends, a boyfriend and normal teen age concerns became hazy and unavailable. It was difficult to reintegrate into school after hospitalization, and frequently found myself on the ‘outside’ looking in.

Growing up with these experiences colored how I’ve learned to deal with isolation and loneliness. I lacked some social skills, was very shy and poured my energy into art. It took a long time to make peace with being alone, and learn how to balance my need for people with the time alone needed to make art.


Today, I credit this desire for balance with my decision to begin teaching late in adulthood after primarily being a studio artist. I take joy in sharing my craft and the process of making art. I learned to be persistent as I came back to art again and again for expression as I coped with loneliness and depression. Although the JRA “burned out” by my early 20’s, I was left with some physical issues as well that persist to this day. Because of my illness experience, I found a way toward my life’s work as an artist.



Idelle Hammond-Sass is an artist and instructor in Ann Arbor, Mi. She creates jewelry and is an instructor with Ann Arbor Recreation and Education. She facilitates workshops in the Open Studio Process, a creative process workshop.