Painting To Heal My Body From Crohn’s

“Art is a wound turned into light” – Georges Braque

I was 21 when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.  I was at the age where I was just beginning my adult life.  My life journey suddenly took me into a direction I wasn’t prepared for.  I was an outgoing social person who suddenly had everything taken away.  I had no control over my sickness.

For three years I battled with Crohn’s at its worst.  I lost an extreme amount of weight from not being able to eat.  Everything that was put in my mouth gave me agonizing stomach pain which then turned into extreme diarrhea.  I was a prisoner in my own home. Having to go to the bathroom 20 plus times a day became my normal.  But I could cope with the diarrhea, I could cope with the chronic tiredness, I could cope with the pain, I could cope with the joint pain that plagued my body, I could cope with the endless medication and the side effects it gave, but what I couldn’t cope with was the loneliness, the lack of control I felt I had over my life, and most of all, I couldn’t cope with not being the person I wanted to be.

After years of symptoms and trying medication to settle the Crohn’s, I formed an abscess on my large intestine which grew to the size of a football.  I was taken in for emergency surgery.  I was told when I wake up I will have a colostomy bag as there was probably too much damage to my bowel. I didn’t care.  I just wanted everything to be fixed.  I just wanted my life back.  When I woke up I remember the nurse saying ‘you didn’t need a bag’  I felt this was the first positive thing that had happened to me in years.  I slowly recovered from the surgery.  My body was so sick (before having the surgery), and the abscess had been slowly leaking poison into my body, so my recovery was very slow.

For the next few years, I suffered from bowel obstructions due to the scarring in my bowel.  I was placed in the hospital for a week, given IV medication and fluids, had a nasogastric tube inserted. The the pain and symptoms would pass.  My body started to heal.  My symptoms of Crohn’s started to stop.  I stopped all the medication, I stopped worrying about leaving the house in case I had chronic diarrhea,  I had no pain, I had my life back!

For 14 years I lived as if I didn’t have Crohn’s.  I knew the monster was being dormant in my body, but I lived like it wasn’t there. I met the love of my life and started a family.  I became a mother to 5 children and started working full time.  My life was extremely busy and I used that excuse not to look after myself.  My diet consisted of coffee all day and the take out food at night.  I would read and research different diets that people had success with to manage their Crohn’s.  I knew all the right things to do and eat, but my attitude always was ‘I’ll start tomorrow,’ but that tomorrow never came.  I knew I was a ticking time bomb, and if I didn’t change my lifestyle soon I would pay the price.  But I always had an excuse.  I started to destress my life by painting. I had always been creative and a free spirit.  I started to create art and found it was a way to emerge into emerge into a world where I could express who I was and who I wanted to be.


Art became who I was and I finally found something I was passionate about and made me feel free.  I felt this was my way of doing something right for my body and mind, a way to destress from the hectic life I was living.  I continued to research different diets and lifestyles to heal my body.  But that research continued to only live in my mind and didn’t  make it into my day to day life.  My love of art and creating became my passion.  I felt my mind and soul healing and it had a calming effect on my life.

Then one day late 2015 I ate breakfast, and within 5 minutes I had diarrhea.  That one day turned into a daily occurrence.  Then the pain started. I pretended it wasn’t there.  I thought, if I could ignore it, it will go away.  But my ability to ignore it became harder and harder.  I started to take days off work, and started to have to cancel my plans with my friends and family.  But I still ignored it and didn’t want to face it.  I was too busy to deal with sickness.  I continued with my art as a way to escape what life was about to throw at me.

The day I knew the Crohn’s had awakened was the day I couldn’t wear jeans.  Wearing anything tight around my stomach was agony.  I knew the Crohn’s was back and I knew I needed to do something about it.  I went once again to my GP who told me straight ‘If you don’t deal with this now you will do no good to anyone’  she told me.  I thought of my kids and I thought of my husband.  I needed to face this.  My GP sent me to the ER.  They straight away admitted me to the hospital and started all the tests.  The MRI showed I had 30cms of my bowel affected by active Crohn’s.  I also had small perforations of the bowel.  I could no longer ignore it.  I was in the hospital for a week that time, then discharged for a week and back in for 10 days.  I was put on a high dose of steroids and started many long term medication that had success treating Crohn’s.  But the side effects from these medications are horrendous. I suffer from major tremors, my hair is falling out, major weight gain, insomnia, bad skin, extreme fatigue, low heart rate, painful joint pain in my hips, constant viruses, and my mental health was declining.  I took long unpaid sick leave from work.

Once again I was faced with everything being taken away from me. But this time I was a Mother, a wife and I had responsibilities that I never had when I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s.  The feeling of lack of control is one of the hardest things I find to deal with.  I learned very quickly I can only take it one day at a time, because how I feel today may not be how  I will feel tomorrow.  My home life quickly adapted to me being sick.   My husband and children quickly learned that they couldn’t rely on me anymore.  They all stepped up and helped out in their own ways.  Cuddles on the couch with me quickly became our way of making things better.

I started declining in my mental state.  Working in mental health I already knew how quickly it would be for me to sink into depression.  The feeling of loneliness is such a big part of this disease.  I found only a small handful of family and friends really understood what I was going through and supported me.  It is very easy to become let down and hurt by people when dealing with any chronic illness.  Most people didn’t understand how sick I was, or just assumed I was better.  Soon the invites, phone calls, and text messages stopped.  I started joining online social media support groups.  I was amazed how much this helped.  I gained so much knowledge on my disease and realized that the things I was experiencing, others were dealing with the same thing. Suddenly didn’t feel so alone.

I was able to work on my mental health.  I started trying to understand my emotions and why I was feeling the way I was at the time.  If I was feeling angry I would stop and focus on the real reason why I was feeling this way, most times anger equaled pain. When I was feeling lonely that was mostly because I had been in my bed all day, so I got up and laid on the couch around my family.  So each negative emotion I felt, I tried to connect with a reason and then changed my situation. I also kept reminding myself that the medication I was taking is playing a major part in my thoughts and feelings.

I continued with my art, but my whole way of creating changed.  Somedays I would only complete a background on canvas.  My hands shook so much I was unable to do anything with detail.  Somedays my art turned out dark and gloomy, other days it was bright and shiny.  I realized art was a way to express every feeling I was going through.  My art quickly became my therapy.  It became my healing.  Every piece of my art became an expression of my journey.  Every single detail that is on a canvas tells a story of what and how I was feeling when I painted it. I started creating journals.  I painted, drew and wrote every feeling down.  It was healing to read back and see how far I had come.  I started creating journals for others.  I gave them away to friends and family for presents, it soon became my passion for others to heal through being creative.


I wish I could end my story saying I have gone back into remission and living life again, but I can’t.  Each day is a battle for me.  One day I will almost feel normal, and the next day I’m completely bedridden from pain and sickness.  I’m taking many prescription medications to settle the Crohn’s.  I struggle taking these as the side effects are sometimes worse than the Crohn’s symptoms.  I’ve also changed my diet, and am putting into practice everything I have learned.  I’m filling my body with probiotics, healing my gut with bone broth and eating clean and healthy foods.  I’m taking small steps to heal myself with diet, but most of all I’m continuing with my art as this is my biggest self-healing I can do.  I have found an amazing online community of people who experience what I do in their day to day lives.  It’s so helpful to have people who truly understand the struggle we all face living with a chronic illness.  Somedays I am able to support others, and then some days they are able to support me.

My future is still uncertain.  I’m still yet to find the right medication that works for me.  I’m still taking knowledge of different diets and lifestyles and making it work for me.  Trying to find the right combination is trial and error, but I do know that everything I am doing will eventually have a positive impact on my body and mind and hopefully put me back into remission one day.


Omar Hassan: In Conversation

We are excited for our event in collaboration with Unix Gallery and Contini Art UK , where we will have a live performance by artist Omar Hassan! (Make sure to RSVP to andrew@unixgallery.com)

In anticipation, here is an interview between Contini Art UK’s sales and marketing director, Diego Giolitti, and artist Omar Hassan where Omar discusses the partnership with Lyfebulb, his inspiration, and his Breaking Through exhibition.


Diego Giolitti: Welcome, Omar. I would like to start our conversation by talking about the upcoming event organized by Lyfebulb, the charity that has invited you to exhibit your work in a solo show in Manhattan, New York. What does this show mean to you as an artist? The fact that you are exhibiting in New York, and that you have been chosen by LYFEBULB to take part in this project? What are your expectations for the show? How do you see this experience unfolding and why did you agree to take part in the project?

Omar Hassan: New York is one of the world’s great capitals of the arts, having a solo exhibition here is really stimulating for me as an artist. The success and interest generated by my three previous exhibitions, that have been dedicated to my Breaking Through series, has created a level of expectation within the New York art scene, something that I am very flattered by and proud of. Above all, however, I am honored to have the opportunity to collaborate with Lyfebulb. Dr. Karin Hehenberger (the head of Lyfebulb) and I have many things in common, but two factors have really stood out for me. Firstly, of course, is the fact that we both have type 1 diabetes, and secondly is the passion that we both put into our work in order to have as many people as possible understand that having a chronic illness does not mean that you cannot go on living your life and achieving your dreams. Lyfebulb’s goal is to change the quality of life and thinking of those who suffer from a chronic condition for the better, and this is something I strongly support.

Having a chronic illness does not mean that you cannot go on living your life and achieving your dreams.

DG: Indeed, there is a clear connection between this exhibition and your past ones. I regard this upcoming exhibition in New York as the next step along a path that started with your solo show at ContiniArtUK in London, your representative gallery, where you first exhibited pieces from the Breaking Through series. I remember at the time that you said to me, ‘I feel that these works fully represent my current production, but I also see them as belonging to a specific phase of my career.’ These words implicitly expressed your wish not to be misrepresented or labelled by the public as ‘Omar, the artist-boxer’. Can you expand on why your art can not be labelled as the work of a boxer turned painter? Why should we regard such a description of your work as false, or too limiting?

OH: I have always said that I wanted to incorporate a very important aspect of my life into my artistic research: namely boxing, the sport that has given me so much on both a personal and educational level. I wanted to bring to light the concept that lies behind this sport which, for me, can be considered as a metaphor for life. In boxing, as in life, you are alone; boxing requires hard work and daily effort; when you are knocked down you must get back up on your feet and continue to fight. In terms of what is put across by the media, who provide a superficial insight into the work I have done with my Breaking Through series, it may lead one to closely associate the terms “artist” with “boxer”. However, I want to point out that I am not a Floyd Mayweather Jr who suddenly started painting. Rather, I am an artist who studied at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, who carried out my own research in painting, and simply decided to incorporate a very important aspect of my life into my art.  In addition, boxing works well in terms of synthesizing a pictorial gesture with a strong visual impact, demonstrating the coherence of these paintings as a whole; in the sense that they belong to the same creative phase in my work. I am saying this without wishing to push the parallels too far, but we have had Fontana’s cuts and Pollock’s drippings, so why not Hassan’s punches? These synthesizing gestures can work, but only when they are contextualized within the broader framework of an artist’s oeuvre. So I believe it is important to contextualize this phase of my career. But I also believe that anyone – from collectors to casual observers – can clearly see that I am not merely a boxer who uses his sport to paints pictures.


DG: This aspect is extremely important to me too and, as someone who has supported you since the beginning of your career, I want the public to know about it. I have watched your journey unfold and, especially in the past 2 years, I have witnessed a huge development, particularly in terms of technique. Thanks to a process of inner growth and maturation, your artistic identity has become even clearer, more distinct and, most importantly, more accessible. But we will get back to this point in a minute. Art is a message and can have an educational function, and I think that this aspect is very important in your case. Lyfebulb has chosen you because, among other reasons, through your artistic practice you have revealed something personal about yourself. Your Injections series directly references the fact that you have diabetes and, as previously mentioned, your Breaking Through series which clearly displays your love of boxing. Lyfebulb has chosen you so that you can be an example to others, showing them that, regardless of one’s initial situation, one can achieve anything in life. Each of us must find strength in his or herself and aim for his or her goal. Do you agree?

OH: Of course, that is what I meant when I was talking about boxing, but equally I do not presume to educate anyone. I believe in art being an experience that is part of our sensory and cognitive life. This is my motto. So I took facts and experiences from my life and turned them into something that the public could empathize with, something that others, too, could benefit from. Obviously I am honored to have been selected by Lyfebulb and I hope that I too can be an example (in the sense I have just explained) to young people and adults alike.

DG: Let us now talk about the use of gesture in your work. From an art theory perspective, it can be said that sign and gesture are the first steps towards the rationalisation of artistic production. Without the sign, comprehension is impossible. In my opinion, gesture has always been a dominant and fundamental element in your art. Of course, an artist’s technique and stance are a very revealing factor on which the resulting artwork depends.

OH: I have always been committed to keeping my painting contemporary and current. Nowadays it is very difficult to be original and contemporary with painting because of the amount of techniques which have already been explored throughout art history. Today, producing a painting means assuming a responsibility. I want to take this responsibility, I want to carry an artistic research through pictorial (and, in my case, primordial) gestures inspired by the works of the historical avant-garde as well as the new avant-garde in the last century. I have always tried to remain contemporary in my work through gestures that produce signs that lead to traces of the real. My approach has always remained the same ever since I started using cans of spray paint, the tools that originally inspired me to practice art and explore artistic expression. The can of spray paint became like a breath of life, bringing together my entire culture and tradition, leading me to more impetuous and instinctive gestures, like that of the punch in the Breaking Through paintings. This big punch is a simple (i.e., primordial) element. A punch has an incredible amount of concentrated energy that should not be considered in a negative light; it is both an acceleration of energy and a very fast movement.

DG: So, you do not want to make a distinction between sensation and thought. There is almost an element of spontaneous organization in what you do. The element of spontaneity.

OH: But my spontaneity is well thought-out.

DG: Do you mean that you deliberately channel your spontaneity?

OH: All of my work stems from an idea, from a concept; technique is never the starting point for me. I do not develop a concept after finishing the work; rather, the work is the result of the development of a concept.

DG: So there is a sort of balance between sensation and thought in your art, which is one of the hardest things to achieve for an artist. Another very interesting aspect of your work is its honesty – there is a part of yourself in your work, a part of your life. I am in love with your Injection painting titled “Self-portrait”, which has been included in this catalogue. I find it fascinating in that it is a reflection of your soul, of who you are as an artist. For me this piece depicts both the development of an idea, and the use of gesture, which is a truly distinguishing feature of your work. Something I have always wanted to know but was afraid to ask is, why this particular painting was the point when you said to yourself, ‘This is a portrait of myself’?  Could you describe the painting and share something about the process that led you to its creation?

Egyptian Italian artist Omas Hassan exhibtion. He uses his experience as a former boxer to create his work. Omas Hassan

OH: I painted this work during the preparation for my exhibition at ContiniArtUK in London. A classical frame surrounds a white-on- white dotted background that took several days to complete. Later on I spray-painted a black dot in the middle of the canvas, a singular point from which the paint drips down to the bottom of the canvas. I entitled it “Self- portrait” because since the very beginning I regarded it as the last painting in my Injections series, as it is a chromatic and conceptual synthesis. This explains the use of black and white. Everybody has inside them two different parts, one for the entire world to see, the other only for themselves. I wanted to bring out both of these parts. “Self-portrait” explains this dualism: what you see is not always the reality. Because it took me such a long time to paint the white element of the canvas and only only a few minutes to paint the small black dot, in that painting I am not the black dot but I am the white mass around it. It means that sometimes the things that stay in the background, the things you don’t see, are the most important. The essential is often invisible to the eye…

DG: This is a wonderful metaphorical translation of your self-portrait. The first time I saw that painting, with its title, I did not think it portrayed your physical features, your mood or your personality. After all, as I know you well, you are a cheerful person and could never be a black dot (an orange one, perhaps, since orange is your favorite color). You certainly know that white light is made of all the colors, while black neutralizes them all. I thought that this painting portrayed the difficulties of your artistic journey; I thought it represented a farewell to a specific expressive form (Injections) and the need to start a new phase. So, I interpreted it as an artistic transition. I am happy you said that because I feel that I managed to connect with your art and understand on a certain level, or at least I hope so. What do you want to achieve with this solo show in New York? What do you expect from it?

OH: I hope to expand my artistic horizons and start on a new path that will help me grow as an artist and as a person. I also hope that my experience in New York will be as stimulating as the one I had in London when I first exhibited at ContiniArtUK.

DG: Is there anything else you would like to say to your public? Anything that may help them to better understand you or your art, or that you just wish to emphasize?

OH: My motto is, ‘artistic research’. I will never be satisfied with a beautiful painting, I will always try to make more paintings, even worse ones, but I will never stop creating.

DG: What do you mean by ‘worse ones’?

OH: There is no guarantee that I will constantly improve, I do not presume to say that I will constantly improve; but I can certainly say that I will always try to do better.

DG: This is so beautiful, and you know, one of the things that I have always liked about you as an artist is that you do not settle for a style or form and reproduce it endlessly but, rather, you are constantly looking for new avenues to express your vision.

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