Inja Cho: Painting to Heal

by Sharon Kenney

Among the works that local artist Inja Cho displayed in her studio in the Park Trades Center at the May Art Hop were pieces from her most recent collection titled [Cold + Hot] Series. Her paintings in this collection, done in oil paint, are abstract in their composition. She uses vibrant colors and unconventional lines and forms to create expressive pieces. The works immediately draw the viewer in to look more closely and to contemplate the source for such energy that is being emitted through her paintings.

Inja Cho’s inspiration and cause for her art is due to an emergency neurosurgery she under went in 2005. The procedure, known as anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) is a surgical procedure performed to remove a herniated or degenerative disc in the cervical spine. Due to the surgery she lost function in her right hand and both legs. The surgery was successful in the sense that Cho was no longer in danger of dying, but the healing process was just beginning. Cho regained the ability to walk and use her hand over time, but she still has permanent pain and severe spasticity around her shoulders and neck as well as the complete loss of sensation on the entire left side of her body. She was unable to continue her job as a computer graphic designer, but after physical therapy, she moved forward to a new artistic medium. She has stated, “I have decided to paint again to reflect my feelings of fear, gratitude, and hope.” [1] She now uses painting to express her pain and recovery and to use the medium as a healing process. The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as:

“…the therapeutic use of art making… by people who experience illness, trauma, or challenges in living, and by people who seek personal development. Through creating art and reflecting on the art products and processes, people can increase awareness of self and others cope with symptoms, stress, and traumatic experiences; enhance cognitive abilities; and enjoy the life-affirming pleasures of making art.” [2]

Looking at the [Cold + Hot] Series with this in mind explains and gives deeper meaning to the pieces. The piece Red Dawn seems to involve the somewhat violent and more searing pain that Cho feels. The majority of colors in this piece are in a deep, blood-like red, which immediately suggests burning passion, as well as blood and organs themselves. The coloration is very similar to that of what a bruise would look like. The sharp white lines that dissect the canvas add to the hectic and uncontrollable nature of the painting, and communicate Cho’s traumatic experiences through surgery and recovery. However, the top half of the piece, above what is almost indicative of a horizon line, is a much more pleasant feeling due to the cool hue of colors that are soothing. As the title implies, through all the bad and harm, there is still hope for a brighter and more pleasant future. Red Dawn is a hopeful representation of a new day, and a new present for Cho that is still burnt from the past.

Inja Cho, Red Dawn, 2011. Oil, mixed media.


Inja Cho, Overflow, 2011. Oil, mixed media.

In Overflow, strokes of paint in converging sweeps create an overwhelming amount of action on the canvas. A black spherical form almost splashes in the currents of paint. The dark mass has an almost splashing effect of additional strokes of paint which disturbs the piece more. This piece can be analyzed as an overflow of pain and emotion from the artist – expression of what she felt during the time of creation, during a time when she needed to turn to painting to cope with the pain of recovery.

Cho’s art memorializes her healing process in the moment, through the spontaneous and expressive style of her painting. While in the fleeting moment of emotion or pain, Cho records her feelings in paint and creates a material image of what her recovery looks like. Her paintings are not at all entirely about pain, they also contain a lively energy that is optimistic and dynamic. While some pieces are sadder than other more happy joyful pieces, they all share the common theme of dealing with aspects of recovery. Whether they display hope for the future or current hurting, her works are visual representations of Cho’s recuperation. Furthermore, Cho’s works function while they are still in the process of being created, and they function for her and her alone. Only Cho truly knows what the pieces mean and what they achieve(d) for her.  The title of the series explains a lot of Cho’s intentions, in many of the pieces, the content seems to be a mixture of both hot, warm colors that suggest suffering and cold, cool colors that suggest ease and comfort.  However, no matter how much a viewer analyzes her work they will never appreciate and comprehend the full extent of their meaning. Cho’s art is fundamentally therapeutic in that it is created by the artist with the intention of achieving some relief and understanding of her physical and possible emotional pain.

Margaret Naumburg, one of the founders of art therapy, once stated,

“The pupil or patient must of necessity stand at an easel or sit at a table to paint or model. He is encouraged to cultivate the use of ‘free association’ in order to discover for himself the symbolic significance of his spontaneous art productions. This technique, originally developed by Freud, means the spontaneous reporting of every thought or feeling as it arises from the unconscious, without rejection or criticism.” [3]

What Cho’s art achieves is a visual representation of what she feels inside. Her spontaneous style of using paint on canvas to convey personal internal damage and healing is therapeutic and goes deeper than purely creating an artistic composition. Furthermore, her paintings serve as visual collections of her individual experience of healing.


[1] Inja Cho, “Personal Background: ‘Things Happen for a Reason,’” The art of Inja Cho, Date of Access: 22 May 2012.

[2] American Art Therapy Association, “Art Therapy,” Date of Access: 22 May 2012.

[3] Margaret Naumburg, “Spontaneous art in education and psychotherapy,” American Journal Of Art Therapy 40, no. 1 (2001): 47.

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