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Artistic flair

Published on 01 October 2009
Source: Arthritis Today

Jan Williams and her paintings

Anti-TNF therapy has changed the lives of many people with inflammatory arthritis. For Jan Williams, the drug helped her discover a previously untapped talent for art – and set her on a fulfilling new life.

For Jan Williams, gaining a first class honours degree in fine art earlier this year was the happy ending to her incredible story of triumph over illness and disability.

For years Jan, from Cardiff, was crippled by severe psoriatic arthritis. Frequently in and out of a wheelchair, she struggled to bring up her five children, and had to give up work in her 30's when her condition worsened. For several years her arthritis. was not properly controlled and she had to live with constant pain and restricted mobility. In particular her hands were inflamed and deformed by the devastating effects of the disease.

But 6 years ago her life turned round. A new drug therapy transformed her life, enabling her to pick up a paintbrush for the first time since leaving school and enroll on a degree course in fine art at Cardiff School of Art and Design.

Jan’s salvation was a drug called infliximab, part of a new class of drugs called anti-TNF therapy. The drugs were pioneered and developed by Arthritis Research UK whose Cardiff branch Jan has been a member of for several years. The drugs also known as ‘biologicals’, block the action of a protein called tumour necrosis factor (TNF), excessive amounts of which cause inflammation when they build up in the joints and bloodstream. Although not a cure, they control symptoms in many patients to such an extent that they can return to a near-normal life.

Now Jan’s hard work and artistic flair has been rewarded after she gained a first class honours degree – and in the same week one of her paintings of her studio was selected from among all final year painting students for a £500 prize by the National Museum Wales. Her painting is now hanging at the Cardiff School of Art and Design Howard Gardens campus.

“My hands are quite twisted and deformed by arthritis so I wore gloves at my art school interview because I didn’t want to be treated differently”, says Jan. “The past three years have been brilliant. Going to art school and winning this prize has been a wonderful experience, but if I hadn’t had arthritis I would never have done it. Infliximab has made a complete difference to my life and enabled me to do things I didn’t know I was capable of.”

Jan was encouraged to take up the fine art degree by her consultant at University of Wales Hospital, Dr Sharon Jones, to boost her self-esteem, which was low after years of illness.

"I was inspired to do fine art through the stories of the Great Masters such as Renoir, Klee and Dufy, all of whom produced great and enduring works of art despite suffering crippling illnesses like mine,” explains Jan. “I also wanted to study art because I felt it would be a way for me to fight back and restore my self-esteem and independence.”

Although she had not done any art since junior school, Jan sailed through the access course before applying to art school where she has specialised in painting interior scenes in oil on board and canvas.

In a way, gaining a degree has been the beginning rather than the end of her story because she is now studying for a Masters in Fine Art, and as a result of winning the prize she has been asked to produce paintings to hang in the rheumatology department at the University of Wales Hospital where she is a patient. 

Jan Williams, centre, with Mike Tooby from National Museum Wales and Professor Gaynor Kavanagh, Dean of Cardiff School of Art and Design

Director of learning and programmes Professor Mike Tooby, who selected Jan’s painting to win, said he was touched by the simplicity of Jan’s painting. “The one I selected for the prize was one of a group that Jan had painted of her studio, and they were very beautifully achieved and very delicately judged,” he said. “There was a very clever use of light that filled the space, and crucially, the studio was empty - in contrast to many degree show paintings which tend to be very busy. In retrospect, now I know a bit more about Jan and her situation it makes the delicacy and light in her paintings really touching.”

Fred Johnson, area appeals manager for Arthritis Research UK Campaign in South Wales, said: “Jan’s achievement is an inspiring one, which will help other people with severe arthritis to realise that the outlook for them is more positive than ever before. We are very proud of anti-TNF therapy as it has truly revolutionised treatment for millions of people with inflammatory arthritis not just in the UK but around the world.”

Anti-TNF therapy, developed by scientists at Arthritis Research UK’s Kennedy Institute in London, is effective in many different types of severe inflammatory arthritis, including rheumatoid, psoriatic, juvenile idiopathic, and ankylosing spondylitis. The therapy has generated Arthritis Research UK more than £30m in royalty payments over the past nine years, and two new anti-TNF drugs, certolizumab pegol and golimumab, should soon be licensed for use in the UK.

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