As a visual artist and transformative art facilitator who has lead over 400 group experiences, I have long witnessed the power of art to heal, empower, and transform. One of those moments stands out more than the rest.
A few years ago, I was hired by The Wellness Community of Philadelphia to design and lead a workshop for people with cancer. Because of my extensive training in the use of arts in healthcare settings, I wanted to make sure that everyone in the group would be able to engage fully (and comfortably) in all the activities planned for the half-day workshop. In fact, I specifically adapted many aspects of the session during the planning stages: simplifying the art-making process as much as possible; choosing easy to use and non-toxic art materials; ensuring the room was odor and fragrance-free; and paying special attention to the temperature and seating arrangements.
On the day of the workshop, I greeted the attendees as they began to arrive. It was clear that several of them were currently in treatment (radiation and/or chemotherapy) while others were many years into their recovery. A few wore the pinched facial expressions often noticeable in people who are experiencing physical discomfort or pain.
One older woman in particular, who was escorted in by a friend, appeared to be in a great deal of pain. She was slightly hunched over and very thin. It took her some time to get settled into her seat. She also seemed distracted or bored, as if someone had to persuade her to come to the workshop.
When the session began, there were several activities that the woman did not participate in and I wondered to myself if she would get the full benefit of the day if she were unable to engage in the main art-making activity.
But when it was time for the group to move over to the long tables set up for creative work, her eyes widened at the array of colorful paints, fabrics, beads, stamps, and ribbons spread out on the table to choose from. Although it took her some time to pick out her materials, she got right to work on her “dream pillow”.
Because the art-making portion of the workshop would last about an hour, I made a mental note to check on her every ten minutes or so, but by the third “check-in”, it was obvious that she was totally engrossed in her painting and was not having any trouble whatsoever.
As we neared the one-hour mark, the entire group was in active creation mode, busily gluing and stamping their pillows and swaying to the upbeat music playing in the background. Suddenly, the woman I had been concerned about cried out “Oh, my God! My pain is gone!” Every head in the room turned toward her. “When I came here this morning,” she said, “I was in so much pain, but I haven’t had any pain since I started making my pillow”.
I’ll never forget the mile-wide smile on her face and the light shining in her eyes.
You see, even though I could name research studies documenting the fact that hospital patients who participated in bedside art activities often requested much less pain medication and often even left the hospital earlier, it was only in that moment that I truly appreciated how deeply rejuvenating (and perhaps even life-extending) the simplest acts of engaging art and creativity can be.