Encouraging empathy through art

Photo of Kate Maura Kilty

When Toronto-based artist Kate Maura Kilty paints, her hands flow gracefully over the canvas to bring to life her most imaginative designs. Despite watching both her parents cope with arthritis, including with a regimen of strong medications, Kate had never considered how living with arthritis can impact the artistic process. 

“I was blown away by a video shared by a friend of mine who works at Arthritis Society Canada. In it, Pierre-Auguste Renoir is filmed painting one of his masterpieces. For a video shot in the early 1900s, it’s incredibly moving and eye-opening. Renoir’s hands are so disabled that one of his assistants literally has to put the paint brush into his hands,” Kate says. 

Renoir was known to live with rheumatoid arthritis. His symptoms began in his 50s and by the time he was 70 years old, his hands were nearly completely disabled. However, in the eyes of art historians, his debilitating RA did not impact the quality of his work.  

“To me, seeing how Renoir was able to adapt his style despite this brutal disease offers hope. It shows how his passion and masterful talent helped him to overcome the severe physical limitations. He didn’t let arthritis define him.”  

Renoir’s story, coupled with the experience of her parents, inspired Kate to generously donate four pieces of art to inspirationally welcome visitors to the Arthritis Society Canada’s Toronto office. 

Kate Kilty hanging her paintingsReflecting on Renoir and the other Masters, Kate says, “I wanted to create works that remind people of how challenging arthritis is, and to creatively demonstrate how painful the fire of arthritis can be. As an artist, I have such empathy for people who live with this disease and especially those whose livelihoods or creative outlets are impacted.” 

The first piece is inspired by Auguste Rodin, who most famously created The Gates of Hell and The Thinker. Rodin is known for his emotional portrayal of the human figure in sculpture. Kate called this painting That Wounded Place and its emphatic, fiery blues and oranges are meant to depict the pain of arthritis. The close-up of the head and hands invites the viewer to think deeply about the intensity of arthritis and find empathy for those living with this debilitating disease.  

The second creation is a triptych called Within the Fire that features abstracted shapes of hands as creating forms that move like a flame. Many hands pointing to each other and moving around the canvas represent the American Sign Language sign for pain. Different sizes express a variety of ages affected by the disease. 

“I’ve combined digital printing and paint in these creations, to represent the blend of the past and the future. Just like arthritis research and treatments have evolved over the last decades, so too have the mediums of art. I hope this blend inspires people to think about how the body works, how research is changing the future and how, with enough funding, a cure is possible.”