From the Heart: Emma Nilan ’08 Finds Healing through Art

Share this post

Emma Nilan swears by the healing power of art.

The 32-year-old UVM alumna, who was diagnosed as a teenager with a rare heart disease and underwent two heart transplants in her 20s, turned to art early on as a way to express herself and work through her pain.

Emma, 08, studied psychology at UVM, and her only formal training as an artist was an elective art class during her final year of college. She spent a significant time of her college years as a patient at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she began painting in her hospital bed.

She started out creating self-portraits, then moved on to portraits of loved ones and caregivers, then later turned to landscapes and abstracts before eventually finding her way to metals.

Diagnosed with restrictive cardiology myopathy at age 14, Emma’s first heart transplant was at age 22, and her second at age 28. Art has been a way for Emma to meditate and find comfort.

She is exhibiting her first art show, “Coming into Being,” with more than 30 paintings and metal jewelry pieces at UVM Continuing and Distance Education as part of the OLLI at UVM Program.

“I want people to see that chronic illness and having a disability doesn’t prevent you from expressing yourself,” she says. “I hope people see that even from hardship, beautiful things and healing can be created through art.”

Evolution of an Artist

Emma’s journey as an artist evolved from painting to jewelry-making as her health problems became even more complex.

“After my first transplant, I thought everything would be better, but it got worse. With a heart transplant, your nerves are cut so you can’t rely on feeling your heart racing or chest tightening when you’re getting tired,” she explains. “It took me five years to get used to my new heart and in my sixth year, I went into heart failure. The second transplant was so much harder.”

The second transplant was especially difficult because of obvious health complications, and because Emma had allowed herself to believe that her first transplant would be a long-term success. Emma was also devastated knowing that another person had to pass in order for her to get a new heart.

Emma’s second transplant was four years ago at Massachusetts General Hospital. Traumatized by the experience, she began blogging and in 2016 self-published, Elephant in a Girlie Skin: A Memoir About Waiting for My Second Heart Transplant.

While painting is something Emma still cares about, she wanted to find a new way to express herself. Last fall, took a metal arts class and has been hooked ever since.

“I love metals because it makes me feel powerful. It doesn’t remind me of the hospital, and I’m not at all sedentary doing this work,” she says. “It’s helping me realize how much I’m healing myself. Because out of pain can come beautiful things.”