A recent book, Cancer and the Art of Healing co-written by Dr. Marilyn Hundleby and Sherry Abbott, catalogues a variety of activities — painting, singing, writing, photography, journaling, quilting, etc., that have positive effects on patients. “Art helps teach resiliency,” says Hundleby, a clinical psychologist who has followed the results of art’s therapeutic value as practiced in Edmonton, Alberta hospitals for nine years. “Art puts the everyday aspect of their healing journey into perspective,” she says.
Those of us who enjoy relative wellness can adopt the wisdom of this therapy. Researchers have found that art has the ability to rebalance and reunite the mind, body and spirit. As well as improving the quality of life, art can actually prolong it. This is due to the shift in outlook that occurs when we create. Busy hands help healing.
While Dr. Hundleby puts emphasis on the group aspect of the creative cure, a great deal can be self-taught and self-realized. In my many years of observing what I call “the transformation to the creative mode,” I’ve seen many latent creators quietly and effectively do it on their own. As a by-product, some petty phobias, health issues and perceived limitations are tamed or beaten. This success comes with the understanding that we are taking part in something greater than ourselves. It’s easy to place art into the pantheon of humanity’s more evolved pursuits. It’s too bad that so many wait until things are terminal before they come to this realization. But for many the penny just drops and people realize that, philosophically speaking, times are terminal right now.
Art instructors particularly need to look out to those curious and often puzzled faces and realize that many students have a challenging transition ahead of them. It’s going to take a bit of character. For those of you who might try this at home, here’s what you need to do:
Ask yourself what you’d really love to do.
Teach yourself new ideas and new habits.
Use your mind and your hands simply for joy.
Measure life’s progress by creative jobs done.
Raise expectations and the level of work quality.
Monitor the way you feel and what you’re learning.
PS: “Do every act of your life as if it were the last.” (Marcus Aurelius)
Esoterica: Finally moved to a nursing home in their nineties, Grandma and Grandpa sat at a work table with a dozen others who were making Valentine boxes. Being the locally available artist as well as the son-in-law, I had been summoned there by Grandma because she thought I might be able to give her some advice and generally help out. What I found was someone who was thrilled to be able to cut out an accurate heart after so many years of not using scissors for that purpose. I had the same breakthrough — and my glue-work that day was positively brilliant.
Art can be stressful
by Angus McEwan, Scotland
Artists are not bereft of illnesses, especially mental, and cancer can strike anyone. So why is it that it is seen as some sort of panacea for all manner of ills? I have known many artists who have used their creativity to self-destruct to end up living on the outer reaches of society, not fitting in and I suppose being creative almost feeds that bizarre side of their nature. Creating art can also be stressful. I think stress creates the illness and taking art classes can aid in the process of healing. But not selling or being rejected or ignored creates its own stress. I ask the question: Do you think there is a difference between those who take classes to relax and unwind and those who create for a living? I think I know the answer. Fortunately, or unfortunately for my health, I can’t help creating.
Therapeutic effects of art
by Antoinette Ledzian, Stonington, CT, USA
Is this National Creativity Week? Just as I was composing a response to you, in came an email from The Center for Design & Business at RISD entitled, “Making Creativity Count,” inviting anyone involved in the arts to participate in a community forum on the payback on creativity, innovation, intellectual property and design.
Many thanks for reinforcing the therapeutic effects and value of art for healing. May I also suggest Barbara Ganim’s book, Art and Healing, Using Expressive Art to Heal your Body, Mind and Spirit. I was fortunate enough to participate and be included in this work while Barbara was gathering information for its publication in 1999. Its profound effects have carried me through many difficult journeys, and I can’t emphasise enough the importance of the expressive arts as well as traditional modalities in processing one’s everyday experiences.
Sharing with many
by Marilyn Blundin, Italy
On many occasions I share your words of wisdom with friends and family. This time your topic struck a particular chord. I was diagnosed with breast cancer last August and went through the process of the treatments. This event also put me in touch with many other women working through the process. So today I wanted to share your letter with them. I posted this to the Discussion Boards “Moving Beyond Cancer.” I think it will be welcomed by many. Thanks so much for your letters and your vision of the world.
Importance of teaching art
by Janet Toney, Greeneville, TN, USA
I met a retired grade school art teacher who worried that her life’s Work was not important. It didn’t help feed or clothe the poor students, or save the victims of abuse, etc. Always wished I could find a way to convince her how important her work really was. She is a colorful personality and I would have liked having her as my art teacher. She and others who teach art encourage dreaming, creativity, romance, and the joy of living. As a child my happiest times were in art classes. They seemed to give me permission and a way to be me. In many areas of life and in subjects studied in classes, the thoughts and accomplishments of others are the focus. In art, craft, sewing, etc. the student is given an opportunity to achieve, to share their own thoughts and what’s inside. It’s life not so dependent on the physical body or others, a gift to others only the creator can give. Creative people inspire others — you are a good example of that!
Art is healing
by Susan Borgas, Australia
I just discovered a Belgian philosopher, and, relatively spoken, understandable art philosophy. He starts from the concept of mimesis and investigates the relationship between art and design, art and philosophy and art and reality. In fact he speaks about design which is presenting as art, reality, which is presenting as art and finally statements about the world and the society which are presented also as art. I think this philosophy shall interest you.
by Jan Verhulst, Beveren, Belgium
I just discovered a Belgian philosopher, Stefan Beyst, who has a very interesting and, relatively spoken, understandable art philosophy. He starts from the concept of mimesis and investigates the relationship between art and design, art and philosophy and art and reality. In fact he speaks about design which is presenting as art, reality, which is presenting as art and finally statements about the world and the society which are presented also as art. I think this philosophy shall interest you.
New and richer life after disability
by Mikki Petersen, Placerville, CA, USA
I was devastated. My identity was largely connected to my profession. I went into a deep depression which only further complicated my illness. After about a year of self-pity, I came across an old set of pastels left over from high school over 30 years ago. Out of boredom, I began playing around with them and was soon painting with enthusiasm. Suddenly, I had a new self-determination and a reason to get out of bed each morning. Today, I’m happy to report that I am committed to painting daily, even if only for a short while. I am studying with a very well known artist and I’ve won several awards locally. My pursuit of artistic expression has given me a new and richer life and has been significant in my learning to live with disability. I look forward to the journey ahead.
Creativity brings us together
by Valerie Kent, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada
No truth is better than the real one, and the real one is that creativity brings us together. I have the privilege of leading art therapy groups with patients in extended care at two hospitals. Getting lost in the work is the ultimate beauty of what we do. Art therapy is all about the moment, all about the process, all about happiness. Then the sharing is important: we share not only the creation of the work, the talk, the materials, the realization that we can just do it, but later the art works are hung around the halls of the hospitals bringing a further sharing with others on the floors. At one of the hospitals, at last year’s art show, we sold out to the walls. Families and friends continue sharing in our joy.
by Carole Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
I have always thought that much of our modern feelings of sadness and isolation might easily stem from the loss of creative opportunities we as a group collective have suffered: no tribal dancing, no making of masks, no learning how to blow a flute or beat a drum, no group chanting or singing of stories, no painting of pottery or carving of totems, no handling of beads or feathers, no fingers wet with clay, no paint on our bodies, no handmade baskets on our shelves — my god! It’s a miracle we have survived at all! The soul hungers for art. Without it we shrivel and become tense and empty. With it we expand with ethers of bliss, and expansion through art always leads us to love. Yesterday, I worked at an art table for kids at a fair in our town. I watched the little children string beads to make necklaces and do paintings. The one thing they all had in common when they finished their art-pieces was joy. You could see it in their eyes. They loved themselves, at least for the moment, and their emotion was like a warm wave that rippled through the air. Adults are no different, but most people seldom get a chance to make art. It’s a terrible loss. I think many of the illnesses we suffer today could be cured with a toybox full of “art stuff” and someone willing to dig in there with us and have fun.
Creative help for long term patients
by Dianne Erickson, River Falls. WI, USA
University of Washington Medical Center. My job was one I made myself through the state artist in residence program. Simply, I traveled the units where long term patients resided and provided them with materials and ideas to be creative with. I was the creative cheerleader, basically just giving them permission to use that part of themselves that we put aside for what we call living. I worked with cancer patients, moms on bedrest with problem pregnancies, spinal cord injured folks who could only voice their creative desires. There were days in the Intensive Care areas, where people had been deprived of anything “sensory” for weeks and nurses somehow knew that something tactile could make a difference. I was a fellow artist working right along side. Thanks for a reminder this morning of how fulfilling and important this part of my life was. I enjoy your thoughts that you pass along.
Help for artists helping people
by Cathy DeWitt, Gainesville, FL, USA
As the Director of Music Programs for Shands Arts in Medicine (AIM), a world leader in the arts & healthcare movement, I was delighted to see the subject of your most recent letter. I met Marilyn Hundleby at the international Arts & Healthcare conference in Chicago in April, and she’s been emailing me this week about having me come up to Canada to do a presentation and concert next year.
That being said, I’d like to let you know about the website we have created. Working in this field for nearly twelve years, I know many wonderful artists with incredible products created specifically for people in hospital or other homebound settings, yet they have no way to sell these products or get them out to the people who need them. Even within their own program, there is often not a venue where the artists can sell their wares. That’s what inspired me to start this website. I am trying to get this information out to artists who do this work all over the world.
Art as companion
by Launa D. Romoff, Los Angeles, CA, USA
In 2004 I was diagnosed with Lymphoma of the bones (I am fine now). This past year I entered a competition for Women artists that have or have had Cancer. We had to write an essay on “How My Art Helped Me Deal With My Cancer.” They accepted two of my pieces and put them up in a Cancer Center in Connecticut. The following is an excerpt:
I never considered myself an artist because I couldn’t draw. However, when I started taking collage classes I knew I had found my voice. Two years after my first class I had my first show and sold five pieces. My art nurtured, healed and loved me as I loved doing it. Not only has art transformed me, it has held my hand through my journey with cancer. I look at having cancer as a side road that I had to take on my journey in life. I am blessed that art was my companion down that road.
Art as gateway
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA
Making art seems to be a gateway to something even greater. It is truly multidimensional way beyond the physical dimensions we always deal with. Painting is the vehicle that enables me to reflect the enormous beauty and wonder of the universe we live in. This in itself is immensely healing. In my paintings I get to create and reveal my inner worlds to others in a way that only visual arts can. I may have an idea of where I am headed but, in the process of painting, the work seems to gain its own momentum and starts to show me where it wants to go. It is beneficial for me to surrender to this process. There is a sort of a dance that happens and I feel like I am participating in something primordial and mystical in nature. Art allows me to go beyond my previously perceived limitations and expands my world.
Art as lifeline
by Nancy McGrath, Wynantskill, NY, USA
I have taught visual art classes for quite some time now and the value of art becomes more and more evident as I go on. I teach privately and a lot of my students have been older people who finally have the time to spend on artistic pursuits. Therefore, many of my students have gone through huge life changes. For example, two different ladies each lost an adult child while coming to my classes. I was the first one to receive a phone call by one and the first to receive an e-mail with the news from the other. I have spent several classes with each of them discussing their loss, both individually and in the class group setting. Through this experience I realized that both of these women were using me and their art class as a lifeline. One of the main reasons I think this happens is that art can be all-consuming — taking up all of one’s emotions and thoughts, squeezing out other feelings while the work is being done. Art can fill up your soul until it brims over and gives respite from the world. For those couple of hours, your work is all that you can see and all that matters.
Art as preventive medicine
by Kittie Nesius Beletic, New York, USA
I can surely attest to the connection between wellness and doing what you love. Since I began focusing full-time on my artwork, I am healthier than I’ve ever been in my life. Art is preventive medicine for me!
A quick story about “grandma and grandpa” My Dad had multiple sclerosis and eventually moved into an assisted living space for more complete care. Although he had been a salesman most of his life (not caring for it much), his joy came from working with his hands. He maintained a wood workshop in the garage and spent many hours there repairing furniture for an artist named Nancy Drew, crafting beautiful pieces from raw wood and towards the end, making hand-carved canes for people he loved. When he moved to the assisted living space, his woodshop couldn’t move with him. I was a bit concerned about how that would affect his spirit, since he seemed to be energized from his work. At the time, I had a small hand-painted greeting card line and was paying people to paint the biggest sellers. I asked Dad if he might be interested in being one of my painters. He said he would. We lived a good distance apart, so I packaged some up and sent them his way. About a month later, I went to visit. I was amazed at the portable art studio he had created! He had his room transformed so that about 5 other residents could join him, painting the cards to be “one of a kind,” signing and dating them. They were more beautiful than ever! It gave the card line a special meaning and they sold very well. My favorite part of this story is that on Thursdays, Dad would move a table just outside his doorway and sit there between certain hours, selling the cards already painted or “paint your own” to the residents. They were so happy to have a card shop so close to home!
Acrylics on anything
by Johanna Littleton, Decatur, AL, USA
After surviving a storm at an art show that “gave new meaning to the Wizard of Oz,” I
changed from watercolors on paper to acrylics on anything. I had already left oils behind because they didn’t dry fast enough to fill a booth at an art show, but my studio was bursting with art work that had not dried enough to varnish.
Acrylics let me paint in a watercolor, acrylic or oil style on nearly any surface I choose. They can be vibrant or muted, thin or thick paint and they don’t smell. (I felt like the change from oil to acrylic house paint made by government regulations was a signal to artists to take care.)
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Jo Houtz of Abingdon, MD, USA who wrote. “Regarding art’s abilities to heal… check out one of our local groups in the Baltimore area: Art with A Heart”
And also Marsha Finney of Dallas, UT, USA who asked, “What happens when art becomes an obsession to the detriment of the ‘real’ job? I have to make sure I can pay the bills and it won’t be my art that accomplishes that.”
And also Jennie Rosenbaum of Springvale, Australia who wrote, “I rediscovered my art while trying to cope with disabilities and chronic pain being brought on by a car accident. Instead of dwelling on the accident and my troubles, I am throwing myself into my painting. It’s become more than therapy and has moved into a career — my first show is in a couple of weeks!”
And also Henry Bianchini of Keaau, HI, USA who wrote, “I have been receiving your letters for some months now and I find it amazing how you articulate the creative process on so many levels. As a sculptor/painter for forty years, I thank you for your consistent understanding.”