A PICTURE OF HEALTH
By Gilbert A. Bouchard
Art and healthcare have been linked for as long as human beings have produced works of art and worried about their physical well-being.
In fact, some of the oldest pieces of art ever produced by human beings were fertility-linked, including abstracted masks and other highly decorated objects used in shamanistic healing rituals. The Renaissance split the sciences from the fine arts, but by the 20th century, medicine had started to reincorporate art into healthcare via the professional practice of art therapy.
Traditional art therapy is a licenced, masters-level psychotherapy specialty whereby art is used as a diagnostic or therapeutic tool. Since the 1970s, beginning in the United Kingdom and the United States, arts-in-medicine programs have changed the emphasis to art making, with professional artists assisting patients in creating art.
Ironically, given its reputation as an arts-aware nation that prides itself on its healthcare system, Canada has been slow to join this particular party.
Only in the last decade-and-change have any great Canuck-flavoured strides been made in this field, with groups in Edmonton leading the arts-in-healthcare revolution. Dr. Marilyn Hundleby, an Edmonton-based clinical psychologist and director of the Arts in Medicine program at the Cross Cancer Institute, one of Canada’s oldest arts-in-medicine projects, has pioneered the use of various art forms as a broad-based healing medium for the better part of the last decade.
“One’s feelings and emotions can’t always be fully expressed through words, and sometimes there are no words for what we go through,” says Hundleby. “We use sculpting to help people transform and understand their loss, especially after body-altering surgery, which is very profound for many people and can resolve body image concerns that have been there for a very long time. Five or six weeks spent in the art process often does the work that would take a year in another form of therapy. It’s an incredible power and is something that patients carry forward into the rest of their lives.”
The Cross Cancer Institute’s Arts in Medicine program includes the production of clay self-figures, as well as watercolour and acrylic painting, soapstone carving, fiber arts, choir singing, photography and a journaling project. “All are process-oriented programs that have a writing component,” Hundleby says, adding that a number of other Canadian hospitals have followed suit with similar programs.
“It was quite novel eight years ago and required a vision about the true importance of whole-person care. We’re asserting here that there is no separation of mind and body, and that the use of the arts is an incredible way for an individual to understand what is happening to them at a very essential and holistic level.”
That logic of holistic and whole-person concern is reflected in the art programs offered at Edmonton’s Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts (a full-time, professionally facilitated arts centre and gallery devoted to developmentally challenged adults) and Camp He Ho Ha (Camp Health Hope Happiness, a 45-year-old, year-round, rural recreational camp devoted to children and adults with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities).
The goal of both programs is to move the use of art beyond the realm of overt therapy, or time-killing pastime status, to an activity that allows participants to address complex issues like identity concerns and provides opportunities to display art in a professional context.
According to Nina Haggerty Centre Lead Artist Paul Freeman, one of 27 professional artists the centre hires part-time to work with its 125-plus regular clients, the two-and-a-half-year-old centre allows its clients an opportunity to feel “a part of our community, our culture.”
The program provides what Freeman calls the “intangible effects” of ongoing aesthetic experiences that the educated and art-aware segments of society seldom talk about but accept as a given.
At Camp He Ho Ha, the challenge is in both moving away from looking at art for only its non-art values — art as lessons in hand-eye coordination, learning to follow instructions and sequencing — and making sure a broad art experience is offered for people with disabilities.
“Art also has a creative, spiritual and emotional value, and is a way to see things through other people’s eyes,” says Ellen Green, Camp He Ho Ha Director of Fund Development.
“We’re entering a phase where we’re no longer dismissing art produced by people with disabilities as childlike or naive, but seeing it as art with a different slant on our world and art that can make us think,” she says.
Green adds that many of the clients of the camp revel in being able to explore various aspects of their own identities via their art making: everything from body image to favourite colours and food. “Much of art tells a story, and since many of our clients are nonverbal, if it were not for art they wouldn’t be able to tell their stories at all. Sometimes those stories are simple, sometimes they’re complex, but they’re always honest.”
Green says Camp He Ho Ha has written a guide for how to adapt arts and crafts for people with disabilities, encompassing over 100 projects. She adds that this adaptation often starts by making sure a full and appropriate range of special equipment is available, including scissors that can be orally manipulated, stubby brushes and no-roll crayons, and cornstarch noodles that stick together easily for making two- and three-dimensional shapes.
Marking the groundbreaking role of Edmonton’s half-dozen arts-in-healthcare programs, the venerable Society for the Arts in Healthcare hosted its first-ever Canadian conference in Edmonton this spring, attracting over 425 arts-friendly healthcare specialists from at least seven countries to Alberta’s capital city.
The gathering was not only a validation of the city’s pioneering ways, but for the city’s art-in-healthcare practitioners it was also a great intellectual resource, a networking opportunity and a general eye-opener, says Susan Pointe, the art advisor for the 19-year-old Friends of University of Alberta Hospital’s Art in Healthcare program. Pointe’s program is responsible for the U of A Hospital’s collection of original art as well as the McMullen Gallery and a thriving artist-in-the-wards program that sees poets, musicians and visual artists assist long-term patients in creating works of art.
Describing the arts-in-healthcare movement as being both “so simple and so powerful,” Pointe says recent neuro-immunological studies have shown that “joy, peace and calm” felt by a patient not only release endorphins into the blood system, they also lower blood pressure, underlining a measurable medical reason to support arts-in-healthcare programs.
Pointe adds that art programs like hers are vital because of their ability to combat boredom (“a major problem in the hospital environment”) and help alleviate depression and improve communication between healthcare providers and patients — all of which can shorten the length of a hospital stay and even reduce dependance on pain medication.
Ironically enough, the realization that artistic practice can have a positive impact on bottom-line medical deliverables is closing the circle between modern, science-driven medicine and its shamanistic ancestors.
Gilbert A. Bouchard is an Edmonton-based visual arts writer and broadcaster.