The intersection of art and psoriasis

| Steve Bieler

Art can be decorative: splashy colors on a wall or a sober sculpture in a garden. But art can also educate. Two art projects, one created by a Chinese design student in New York City and the other by four artists in the U.K., tell the world a lot about what it’s like to live with psoriatic disease.

Mengyu Cao is working toward her MFA in Design & Technology at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. She doesn’t have psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis, but when she was in high school, she had serious acne and neurodermatitis, a skin disorder characterized by chronic itching and scratching. This combination was emotionally devastating for Cao.

When her class was assigned an interactive technology project called “Hidden Stories” and told they could choose their own theme, Cao’s choice was easy: skin conditions and the havoc they cause.

She set out to raise the public’s awareness and understanding and to “help people find beauty within themselves,” she said. “I really want people to speak out to express their feelings and to bring more awareness and empathy to other people. The more awareness we create, the more accepted we become.”

In a previous project, Cao explored the visual identity of skin conditions for a women's skin foundation, Keladyscope. For "Hidden Stories," she wanted to dig deeper.

She tried finding volunteers on Facebook and other online forums who would talk to her about their conditions and their lives, but she didn't make much progress until she contacted the National Psoriasis Foundation. NPF put out a call for help and, eventually, seven people with psoriatic disease came forward to appear in various stages of Cao's project.

Cao created wall-mounted plaster hand prints. The mounts had sensors that tracked movement and started audio clips when the exhibit viewers touched the hand print. The idea was to feel the skin textures in the print, make a symbolic connection and listen to the patient’s story.

The stories dealt frankly with itch, pain, mobility and other issues. The project took one month to complete and was called “Stories behind skin patterns.”

Credit: Mengyu Cao, “Stories behind skin patterns"

Cao set out to help increase awareness, but the people she highlighted helped her too. “It encouraged me in my own life. I was touched by these stories. They really made my project.” She credited the feedback she received from her volunteers to helping her gain confidence in her design work.

Note: “Stories behind skin patterns” was a student project and has already been taken down.

“Life’s an Itch”

This catchy phrase is the name of a campaign in the U.K. to raise awareness about the impact of itch for people with psoriasis. This campaign is directed not at the public, but at health care professionals to help them understand what their patients are enduring.

Four artists were commissioned to create art based on a cloud of 1,600 nouns and adjectives about itch. The words were contributed by visitors to the “Life’s an Itch” site who live with this condition every day.

The result: The Itch Art Gallery.

Wire sculptor Michelle Castles of Cumbria created a piece called “Built from Scratch.” “I didn’t know much about psoriasis,” she said. “I was surprised to find there was a stigma attached to it. I was too embarrassed to ask people how they felt about it and perhaps they were too embarrassed to tell people about it because it’s such a visible disease. So there’s a lot of mystery about it.

“The main inspiration for the sculpture was that it contained a narrative,” she explained.

“I would have all these words to work with and they’d come from all these different patients, almost an interactive piece of work I was doing. I had to think of the overall pose of the figure to give the impression that he was tormented – in pain – that there was a discomfort there.


“I would hope that when people see this sculpture they would understand a bit more about the condition psoriasis,” she said, “but more specifically, understand a bit more about what it feels like to be constantly itchy all the time.”

Illustrator Vicky Scott of Brighton created her image to portray the physical and emotional impact of itch on the lives of people with psoriasis, and how they can feel trapped. The bees and birds surrounding the figure symbolize the constant attack of itch, causing pain and discomfort.

“I have a friend with the illness, so I was aware of it. And I had acne as a teenager, so I can imagine the emotional side of having a severe skin illness,” Scott said. “Trying to get across an itch in a visually appealing way is quite tricky. I work with natural elements a lot in my work, so the idea of a spikey cactus and stinging bees seemed like a good solution.”

Credit: Vicky Scott

The Itch Art Gallery will travel between psoriasis-related meetings and conferences in the U.K. throughout the year to help promote the discussion of itch among the medical community. “Life’s an Itch” is a collaboration between Celgene and the U.K.’s Psoriasis Association, supported by the British Dermatological Nursing Group and fully funded by Celgene.

Note: “Life’s an Itch” is not available to the public.

Driving discovery, creating community

For more than 50 years, we’ve been driving efforts to cure psoriatic disease and improve the lives of those affected. But there’s still plenty to do! Learn how you can help our advocacy team shape the laws and policies that affect people with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis – in your state and across the country. Help us raise funds to support research by joining Team NPF, where you can walk, run, cycle, play bingo or create your own fundraising event. If you or someone you love needs free, personalized support for living a healthier life with psoriatic disease, contact our Patient Navigation Center. And keep the National Psoriasis Foundation going strong by making a donation today. Together, we will find a cure.

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