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Art’s Healing Powers

Published: January 1, 2009

More than simply a statement of style, art can improve and enhance one’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

On any given day, landscape artist Barbara Ernst Prey is apt to find e-mails from museum curators and patrons clogging her in-box. Prey’s canvases hang on the walls of world-class institutions, in private collections, and even at the White House. But the messages that cause her voice to crack with emotion are the ones from ordinary people who write about the transforming effects her paintings have on their lives. There’s the letter, for instance, from a man recounting how his relative, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, found solace in Prey’s paintings. “When he was ill and in a wheelchair, he lined up my paintings on a long mantelpiece so he could just look at them and enjoy them,” Prey says.

Prey is a creator of beautiful things. Among her works is a painting of the Space Shuttle Columbia lift-off commissioned by NASA as a tribute to the families of the astronauts who lost their lives in the disaster. Her images soften life’s blows.

Art has that kind of healing effect. Turns out what’s on the wall is a lot more than a statement of style. Medical experts say it can change a person’s physiology, alter perceptions, and have a calming, curative influence. And they knew it even before they could prove it. In 1860, Florence Nightingale wrote about the effect of “beautiful objects” on sickness and recovery. “Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by color and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect.”

In the early 20th century, medical advancements progressed at such a rapid clip, the human factor became secondary to technology. Modern hospitals were sterile, sleek and stark. Then in the 1940s, the curious new field of art therapy came into its own, advancing the notion that art-making could be used to improve and enhance one’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. Conventional medicine remained skeptical until the results became too compelling to ignore, and that’s only been in the past 20 years, says Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Adjunct treatments like art therapy that were once considered “weird” are now being welcomed. “If looking at a beautiful picture in a room or having access to art-making helps an individual get through a difficult day or a difficult procedure, it’s getting harder and harder not to be excited about it,” Bauer says, “It’s a fun time of medicine.”

These days, studies are drilling down on the mind-body connection, and the mounting evidence of art’s therapeutic benefits is indisputable. Art helps ailing children gain some control over their helplessness. It reduces pain in cancer patients. It helps Alzheimer’s patients develop a new language of communication and combat memory loss. The Museum of Modern Art in New York hosts a free monthly program for Alzheimer’s patients in which its vast collection of modern masters is used as a platform for mental stimulation.

Mayo Clinic launched a pilot program among men and women battling such serious diseases as leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, many of whom were in hospital isolation. “The idea was to bring something to the bedside that could help improve their quality of life and reduce stress,” says Bauer. That something was art. “Without even trying to be therapeutic, in many cases it was. We were looking at their pain, their mood. If it was negative, could we improve it? If it was positive, could we enhance it?” The answer was an unequivocal yes. And to Bauer’s surprise, the findings crossed over “gender and age and all things I thought might have been barriers.” Bauer says the trial revealed a “trend toward improvement in pain” and “significant improvements” in mood and anxiety reduction.

alzheimer.jpg“When we reduce stress, we improve sleep and we improve the immune system,” Bauer explains. Mayo has received benefactor support to expand the program.

Art history and art-making workshops are a regular part of the schedule offered at Hewlett House, a cancer-support resource center on Long Island. Eileen P. McCarthy has been a regular since she was diagnosed with her third bout of breast cancer in 2005. “Cancer can be in your mind 24/7,” says McCarthy. “Art pushes all that aside.” Not long ago she was painting a beach scene when her instructor, Laura Bollet, came up beside her and asked McCarthy what was the matter. “The calm sea I was painting was suddenly a storm. I didn’t even realize it but it made me grasp how upset I was. It had been all bottled up. I couldn’t get my ocean to calm.” Bollet says the canvas was capturing emotions before McCarthy had a chance to articulate them. The woman who once told a family member she couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler now says art has “become a part of my life. It’s an amazing medium. I was surprised at how far I’ve gone and how far it’s helped me.”

The simple act of enjoying a work of art can be just what the doctor ordered. The University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor has an “Art Cart” program, a kind of lending library of framed poster art. Volunteers go room to room allowing patients to select artwork that connects with them personally to hang on their walls.

As an artist, Barbara Prey says, “It’s very touching to see how your work is used in ways you just don’t know. And it’s rewarding to know I’ve done something that’s made someone’s life a little better.”

Trying to figure out what art is the right prescription for health and healing is, as you might expect, in the eye of the beholder. One man’s Norman Rockwell is another man’s Jackson Pollock.

The_Simple_Life.jpgBauer says landscape scenes have shown promise in studies. “We’re wired to enjoy nature.” According to Bauer, patients in hospital rooms that face woods and trees do better than those in rooms facing, say, a brick wall, which explains why so many medical offices and hospitals are adorned with pictures of the great outdoors. “If you’re going to have a tube placed in your stomach, a fairly uncomfortable procedure, and you can stare at a beautiful scene of a mountain or an ocean, it reduces stress and makes the procedure easier,” Bauer says.

For some, familiar images can spark an emotional connection and release a memory that generates positive feelings. Others get that reassurance by staring at pictures of large color fields or religious iconography.

“Art-making or the act of creating involves every single part of the brain,” says art therapist Elizabeth Cockey of Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center in Baltimore and author of the memoir Drawn from Memory (2007). “It stimulates our neurology, and that feels good.”

Cockey ticks off a list of restorative benefits she’s seen as a result of her work, even in her lowest functioning patients: alleviation of depression, enhanced hand-eye coordination, improved motor coordination leading to more independence, and the restoration of self-esteem. When individuals engage in art-making, they realize, “there’s more to life than their own circumstances.”

Hewlett_House.jpgHer experience is backed up by a report released by the National Endowment for the Arts on the impact of arts programs on older Americans. The study found that seniors who participate in weekly arts programs reported better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage than those who don’t.

Julie Gant is an art therapist who works with patients at the other end of the spectrum at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Art is used to help kids as young as two and three offset hopelessness. “There are so many things kids don’t have choices about — surgery, medical procedures, even blood pressure takings — that getting the chance to make choices instead of passively lying in bed counteracts feeling of helplessness,” she says. The choices may be as simple as what colors to select or what materials to use, but if youngsters can pick up a pencil or a crayon, they can take an active role in creating. “It’s a chance for them to make choices in an environment where their choices are limited.”

Art is such a natural part of kids’ lives that it helps normalize their strange and difficult surroundings and distract them from pain or side effects of medication. Gant says that for youngsters who haven’t had a chance to process what’s happened to them, art can help stave off post-traumatic stress syndrome and other related woes. “Art helps them make sense of their situation.” What’s more, it’s a vehicle to communicate emotions they may not be able to articulate. Drawing something might be easier for a first-grader than talking about it.

In the meantime, Eileen McCarthy says she is winning her battle with cancer. “I would not have gotten through this without the art course at Hewlett House. Art has helped as much as any medication.”

That’s no surprise to folks like Elizabeth Cockey. “The truth is, art makes you better. It doesn’t happen overnight. And not everybody is going to get better in the same way or in the same time frame. But it will happen.”

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  • Carol Ann Howell

    Yes! We need art! Those of us who make it know that it comes through us not from us to paraphrase Gibran.
    We must be in a certain kind of meditation to accomplish it. Sometimes after I have written something or painted something I say to myself who did that? How did I do that? That’s better than I can do. It’s because the stuff comes from the Universal Conscious Mind some call it God. At any rate a rose by any name is sweet. The wonderful thing about art is the more you do it the more you can.
    And those who appreciate our work who are touched by it benefit in their personal ways for which there are no words.
    Carol Ann Howell