Community Voices: How I learned to use art for healing


In this self-portrait, titled “From the Inside Out,” Esther Wilhelm wears a dress made out of medical notes she received following a car accident that left her in chronic pain. Wilhelm’s art has appeared in galleries in Hawaii and on the Mainland.

Art can be many things.

Some people use art to communicate something, others use it to recreate the beauty of what they see. Some make art purely for the joy of mastering it.

I, however, stumbled onto the art scene for healing. The very first project I was given was called “postcards from the edge.” The rules I was given were simple: There were none! Just create postcards and tell a story of what the “edge” is to me.

The first things that came to mind were how I felt about losing my house, job and quality of life after being injured in a hit-and-run car accident. I was angry because I was athletic and was now dealing with chronic pain daily.

The art project took my mind off my pain and negative focus on the things I was unable to do. I was on a mission and I found myself having a quiet conversation on how I felt about my accident, my pain, my life in general with this blank card, which was not able to talk back to me or judge me or comment about anything.

Quickly, art became a trusted friend. And when I was done with my piece and had had my cry, I sent the art project on its way. All pau – I was heard and I felt better, stronger, happier. I got it out and I could actually see my feelings in real life: On paper, with paints, photography, ink, clay, wood, whatever I could find.

I realized that with art, people could see how I felt. My feelings. My story. My pain. I found closure and peace. I did this on my own, but came together with a group to talk, cry, laugh, learn, inspire, and connect. Healing through art is much more powerful when we discover that we are all going through a hard time. When we learn that it’s OK; we are still here and we can hug it out at the end of the day, helping one another get strong.

Through art, I’ve made friends and treated strangers with more care because I see how fragile we all really are. When we peel back the layers — money, status, education, race — we are all the same. We want to be loved and want to give love.


Esther Ann Wilhelm is an award-winning artist and poet who teaches others how to use art for healing. She discovered art therapy at Windward Community College, after running into an art instructor while looking for her husband’s class. Art helped her cope with childhood trauma and a hit-and-run accident in 2007, that left her in chronic pain. Her work has been featured in galleries in Hawaii and on the Mainland. She also serves on the Honolulu Commission on Culture and the Arts.

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