Art for Healing
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
“Do you want to make some art with me?” I asked.
“Is it just for patients? He’s asleep right now,” a woman with heavy black glasses and short grey hair responded.
“No, it’s for visitors too,” I said.
“Okay, I would love to then.”
I set out some supplies for both of us: sturdy paper, pastels, and watercolors. I started to draw the trees and buildings outside of the window, the bare spiky branches, the bright blue sky, and the rhythm of brick and balconies. We were quiet for a little while. A half hour passed, just she and I sitting there, observing, choosing colors, and building forms. Then she started asking me questions: about why I was volunteering at the hospital, about my studies, about my favorite artists. When I included Egon Schiele in my list, she grinned, “Me too! I can’t believe how he articulates bodies. The way that his imagination works is incredible to me.”
While at the hospital, I got to build relationships with the most diverse group of people that I have ever encountered: people who spoke all different languages, came from different countries, economic backgrounds, were of different races and ages. And I got to knock on their doors, ask to make art with them, and create colorful images together in this sterile space.
One patient opened up to me: “The sky feels like it’s so close in LA, but here in New York, it seems really far away. Here, I can see how tall the buildings are, and even they don’t touch the sky. I think my life might have been different if my mom and I had moved to LA. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten involved with drugs and gangs. But hey, who knows.”
Sometimes I get this simultaneously light and heavy feeling in my chest; my breath is momentarily gone, I smile, I hold back tears, and then I exhale. I got that feeling particularly often at the hospital. I’ve been trying to figure out what made the experience so impactful for me, especially in comparison to art for healing volunteering that I’ve done previously.
I then realized that in the past, I had only worked with people younger than myself, mostly adolescents and kids in elementary school. This was the first time that every single person with whom I worked was older. This required a kind of humility that none of the other experiences quite encouraged. I heard stories of hardship and resilience from people who had lived so much more than me, and I just listened and absorbed. I found that yes, I was volunteering a service, but in the end I was really learning, from these tough and kind people who had opened up their space to me, more than anything else. I was learning about Egon Schiele, about the closeness of my own sky, and how to be a better artist.
As I was about to pack up to leave, I looked over at her paper and realized that she was painting me, looking through her husband’s hospital window. I couldn’t keep from smiling. “Thank you so much for this, it’s been the best part of my day,” she said. I shook my head, “No, thank you, I am so grateful for the time that I got to spend with you.” On my way out of the room, I propped my drawing up in the window, hopeful that its color would make their hospital stay a little brighter.
Hospitals across the country are more commonly implementing Art for Healing programs similar to the one in which I got to participate. Included are institutions like the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and Johns Hopkins Hospital, all reputed for high quality patient care. These hospitals have come to the same conclusion: art for healing programming is worth the investment; these programs demonstrably help patients heal.
For example, author Cathy Malchiodi of Medical Art Therapy with Children explains, “All health care professionals who work with physically ill children agree that the experiences of illness, medical treatment, and hospitalization are extremely stressful, and... can have a major influence on children’s development and emotional growth. Thus, pediatric patients’ psychosocial needs are...the major concern in using art expression as therapy”. Being in the hospital is overwhelming; it’s scary; and it’s claustrophobic. For children, psychosocial development is at stake during a hospital stay, and art therapy can make a huge difference.
For patients of all ages however, art therapy provides a mode to create when the world may not feel so optimistic. Art making gives patients a way to express themselves, to connect to their bodies, to alleviate pain, to process a little bit, and to be complicated and vibrant people instead of just medical conditions. A volunteer at the Mayo Clinic’s Arts at the Bedside program explains, “We aren’t treating a disease; we’re treating a person...People are more than just their disease. We need to explore all avenues for healing our patients, and the arts are another avenue of healing.”
- To find out more about healthcare volunteering and in particular art-for-healing programs, check out Mount Sinai's C.A.R.E. Program or look up volunteering opportunities at your local hospital. Many hospitals offer the chance to provide bedside comfort to patients through art-making, games, conversations, and more. Whatever your interest, chances are it can be shared (although these opportunities should be sought out only when it is safe to do so).
- The Mayo Clinic's Arts at the Beside program is operated by their Center for Humanities in Medicine. Click here to learn more about their efforts and the ways in which you can get involved.
- To learn about other organizations with art-for-healing programs, check out Centro Explorativo in Guatemala or Emerge Global in Sri Lanka.
About the Author
Ciara Post is her happiest when she’s making, looking, and talking about art, hiking with her friends, and running on the beach. She also ideally should not be spoken to before her morning coffee.
Ciara is trying to get better at the crossword and would like to learn how to code. You will often find her laughing so hard that she cannot breathe, in political debates with her brother, or both.
To follow more of her work, check out her writer's page or follow her on Instagram: @ciaragspost