Terminal creativity


Dear Artist,

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.

Close-up of leaves In Glacier National Park, 1942 Photograph by Ansel Adams (1902-1984)

Close-up of leaves in Glacier National Park, 1942
Gelatin silver print
by Ansel Adams (1902-1984)

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.

Thunderstorm, Yosemite Valley, 1945 Gelatin ilver print 14 3/4 × 19 inches by Ansel Adams

Thunderstorm, Yosemite Valley, 1945
Gelatin silver print
14 3/4 × 19 inches
by Ansel Adams

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.

Best regards,


Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park, 1942 Gelatin silver print by Ansel Adams

Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park,
Gelatin silver print
by Ansel Adams

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.

This letter was originally published as “Terminal creativity” on June 9, 2006.

Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937 Gelatin silver print by Ansel Adams

Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937
Gelatin silver print
by Ansel Adams

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“Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film. Your bright eyes, your easy smile is your museum.” (Ansel Adams)




  1. On the road be of receiving my cancer’s pathology report—yes apparently I’m the one on your list with the perfect timing—I was reminded by this essay that I’ve been doing things in this best way for years. Another reminder that nothing is really terminal if you capture your joy and leave it for others.

    • As a fellow traveler (artist/cancer) your last line resonated. I’ve had to give numerous talks on art and surviving cancer to both patients and medical professionals/students, and the overarching message always comes back to joy. Best of luck and my prayers that your journey will bring the best possible outcome.

    • I love the last line of your comment and wrote it in my little 5-year quote journal.
      As I lie back on pillows to ward away pain, I determine to write more and get back into my art once again. I completely agree with you on how creative efforts nurture the soul, and so I will follow your lead!

  2. Carol Dombrowski on

    Dear Sara,
    Perfect timing for me today! My wonderful hubby has been trying to inspire me to get back to drawing and painting these last 3 years of doctors’ appointments, surgeries, and pain. But I think you’ve done it. I went back to the original letter in 2006 for another shove in the right direction. I’ve tried every remedy the medical field has offered; but the solution has been right here in my little studio, just waiting patiently for the “right time.” Thank you!!

  3. As wife/caregiver of my life partner who has had to face life with the ever debilitating wrath of Parkinson’s, I have come to understand the importance of making time to paint. It may be for less than half an hour late at night/early morning, or squeezed in at some other moment through the day. I don’t feel resentful in having to give up painting time when I see what he has had to give up. It’s part of who I am, and he insists I paint daily because he knows how important it is to do that. I’ve heard long lectures on how caregivers need to practice “self care”. To hire people to come in so I can go self care, which I assume means spa treatments and lunch with friends, something like that. I just smile and say I do self care every day, in my studio. Love this letter, thank you Robert and Sara!

  4. I agree, wholeheartedly with the curative power of art. In addition to a terrific support system and a wonderful doctor, I had my art to keep me going, having something wonderful to think about and do during the months of chemotherapy. I set up a mini-studio with a comfortable chair and lap-desk in the corner of a room and did many paintings, some good, others a ‘learning experience.’ I have been in remission now for about a year and a half, and believe me, every day is a gift! Another thing; I was never depressed.

  5. I teach Art three days a week my eldest student was 101 years old she had the concentration of a 30 year old. The two things I have heard most of the elderly students say is ” I’ve wanted to do art for years but I always put myself last” , and “I thought art was for old people”. I new from age 5 I wanted be an artist and in the majority of social systems it’s not warranted , but i have persisted .
    Two critics to watch out for the self critic and the non creative’s. If you can tame or avoid this exposure your in the zone.

  6. Sara and Robert, your article holds a special meaning for me! Having studied and teaching art, Cancer unexpectedly (as it does) stopped me cold in my tracks! My body reacted very poorly to chemo and radiation. For the first time in my life I was unable to hold my paintbrush! Reading many fine art books allowed me to feel as close to my passion as possible, despite being unable to physically do my daily artwork. No longer able to take long walks, my husband often took me for short local drives. We stopped at the beautiful Victorian home of the Edward Hopper in Nyack, New York and noticed that there was an art exhibit taking place. I longed to see the art displayed and was carried me up to the front door. The very sight of the paintings instantly reminded me of what I had been missing on my long path to wellness! After completing, my treatments, I became a member of the Edward Hopper Art Club, which met weekly in Hopper’s former living room. I regained my strength while drawing short, and eventually, long poses! Twenty one years have passed since that difficult time, but the memory and hope generated from viewing that small art exhibition has aided me in achieving full recovery! I resumed instructing art, currently focusing on portrait and figure commissions, a life-long dream fulfilled!

  7. About 45 years ago I had the opportunity to visit one of the first cancer support groups created at the medical center where I was staff editor/writer. My assignment was to witness what occurred when people were brought together and encouraged to speak about their choices for addressing their life circumstances following a cancer diagnosis. This experience opened up a new possibility for me as I heard one woman after another speak with passion about the decision to pursue creativity: To take up painting, quilting, drawing, gardening…all of which had been pent up inside. The joy and freedom they expressed in describing their new lives, ironically made possible by the prognosis of a likely terminal illness was life changing, for me as well as for the participants in the program.

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Mexico Art Retreat for Women January 23-30, 2022
January 23, 2022 to January 30, 2022

 DETAILJoin Ellie Harold for “Intuitive Painting: Permission to Paint Expressively,” designed especially for mature women artists of all skill levels who wish to explore this medium for soulful exploration. The retreat provides attractive accommodations (your own room!) along with lightly structured activities for centering, relaxation and low stress art-making. You’ll have plenty of free time to muse, paint, write and reflect while enjoying the colors, textures and flavors of San Miguel. This Retreat has the potential to transform not only your art but your life! You’ll return home with a specific art “care plan” to assure support for further creating. Details at www.EllieHarold.com.


https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Cow-Mountain-View-30-x-40-wpcf_300x221.jpgCow Mountain View
30 x 40 inches

Featured Artist

The move to Northern California spurred my desire to paint the landscape – motivated in part by the fear that I would wake up one day and it would all be gone! I had some kind of doomsday concern, tantamount to extreme climate change or bombs going off like Hiroshima —something drastic.

The Wildfires of 2017 were traumatic, we experienced three on our land that year.

In processing the fire experiences and living with the constant awareness that what happened then can happen again.  I produced  a short film entitled:: From the Ashes – Fire, Survival. and Renewal, about how our community responded to the Redwood Complex Fire 2017.The is film available for free screenings to community fire councils and art institutions.  I am working on part two.

In 2020, largely due to the ensuing California wildfires, we chose to sell our 195 acre place and move back to the East Coast, where our families live and we are creating a new life and farm.

I am still witnessing and interpreting the landscape.

Jaye Alison Moscariello


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