The Art of Healing Creative Expression Helps Patients Cope With Illness
By ROSA SALTER, August 30, 1998 – The Morning Call
Artwork by Darla Vaughan
When Heather Barley was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995 at 20, it was as if her world fell apart.
The Kutztown University art major was halfway through the fall semester of her junior year when doctors recognized that the lump on her neck might be cancerous.
Diagnostic surgery to remove her spleen followed, then two months of radiation treatments and then, unexpectedly, an emotionally draining depression.
Barley temporarily left college and spent almost a year at her parents’ home in Lancaster recuperating. Not surprisingly, during those long days, she turned to her art.
First, it was an antique-looking, handcrafted book she assembled of upholstery fabric trimmed with embroidery floss and filled with mementos of her illness.
Then came fabric dolls representing herself in various stages of cancer. She mounted the figures on velvet-covered panels edged with cord.
“Art forever has been such a big part of my life,” Barley said. “From the time I was home and recuperating and trying to deal with all this, that was one thing I could do.
“I could find solace in that and get my mind off myself, which is what I really needed.”
Barley’s experience is shared by many patients who face particularly trying times coping with serious or chronic illnesses. Modern medicine may work wonders in curing the body, they say, but sometimes it takes more to heal.
Often, said Dr. Bruce Moon, director of the graduate program in art therapy at Marywood College in Scranton, facing a health crisis fuels artistic creativity.
And more and more, medical professionals are giving such expressions their blessing. “There’s a lot more interest in medicine throughout America in the mind-body connection –just the way a patient’s mental state applies to their ability to combat physical illness,” Moon said. “The whole application of the arts in healing is really a burgeoning field.”
Until 10 years ago, Moon said, most art therapists worked in psychiatric settings. Now, their skills are being applied with many kinds of patients. Moon knows of one art therapist, a Marywood graduate, whose office is on the cancer floor of a major hospital. Her job includes wheeling a cart of art supplies to patients so they can paint their feelings during chemotherapy sessions.
Other art therapists work with stroke patients or those with head injuries. The activity aids them by activating undamaged areas of the brain, Moon said. Still other therapists work with hospice patients, who find creating art helps them see meaning in their lives and “find sense and peace in their death,” he said.
At Lehigh Valley Hospital in Salisbury Township, Lorraine Gyauch, a registered nurse, uses drawing with members of support groups who are facing bereavement or are caring for someone with cancer or another illness.
“The way I see it is the use of art and drawing allows for expression that we might not allow to come out when we speak,” she explained.
“What I’ve learned is if I put a sheet of white paper in front of someone, and crayons, their real emotions come through.”
People often “surprise themselves” with what their drawings reveal, said Gyauch, who has a master’s degree in psychology and sociology.
“When people look at their drawing, it allows them access to the thoughts and feelings behind the drawing,” she said.
“Art is an avenue to this deeper expression that allows healing to to take place.”
Visual artist Bill Christine found the direction of his art changed as he watched several friends and relatives battle cancer at the same time and he himself had a cancer scare. The Bethlehem resident had been doing landscapes and “paintings that were really quiet and introspective and meditative,” he said.
Then, his emotions led him to draw with charcoal and concentrate on “a more heroic type of image” of the human figure. “Which is what these people (fighting cancer) represented to me,” he said.
“These are very strong images, and I hope people won’t be put off by them,” Christine, 44, said.
“They’re not meant to be cheerful images, but they’re about the way we have to deal with problems, which is to hang on and keep going.
“There’s a heroic struggle that a person goes through at some point in their lives that a lot of times doesn’t get acknowledged, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Terri Savacool, a certified occupational therapy assistant at St. Luke’s Hospital in Fountain Hill, said drawing isn’t the only only artistic activity that can heal.
She uses crafts, including woodworking, leather craft, jewelry making and clay sculpture. She now works with people with mental illnesses in the hospital’s behavioral health unit, but she has used the techniques with patients with chronic or post-surgical pain. “They’ll chuckle and roll their eyes and say, `There’s no connection with that to why I’m here.’ ” Savacool said of people’s reactions to her methods.