The Art of Healing

“Imago” Collograph/Print, 1970, Ruth Singley Ensign

Art heals, or at least it can, given the ‘right’ art and the right circumstances.

Art is therapeutic. Art therapy, as defined by the American Art Therapy Association is: “…a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, uses art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.”

An increasing number of U.S. hospitals have arts programs, which include art therapy, musical performances, and installations of visual art. The nonprofit Center for Health Design has an excellent free resource Guide to Evidence-based Art. I, of course, particularly love this statement in the Guide:  “Perhaps the most prominent pre-cursor to the art initiative in hospitals today is Florence Nightingale’s Notes for Nursing ([1860], 1969) describing the patients’ need for beauty and making the argument that the effect of beauty is not only on the mind, but on the body as well.”

The healing power of art has even made it into the stalwart and conservative Wall Street Journal (see Laura Landro’s article from August 8, 2014 here). Research studies indicate that exposure to art related to nature or representational art with a positive, uplifting message helps calm anxious patients, speeds healing, and reduces the need for pain medication. I assume by ‘nature’ they mean the calm, peaceful side to nature and not the chaotic, destructive, lion eating the lamb side of nature–which is, after all,  just as natural.

Lately, I’ve been visiting Seattle-area hospitals to take in their public art and to write Ekphrasitic poetry with my poet-psychotherapist friend and narrative medicine colleague, Suzanne Edison. Suzanne is the mother of a child with a rare autoimmune disease and she teaches writing workshops with patients, families, and healthcare professionals. Here is one of my favorite pieces of art that Suzanne and I stumbled upon, located at Harborview Medical Center in the Radiology Department waiting room.

“Journey: Hands” Mixed Media, 1997, Peggy Vanbianchi

The two times in my life when I was hospitalized–when I was thirty, for abdominal surgery for a benign tumor and then when I was forty and was partially paralyzed from lateral myelitis/inflammation of the spine–I remember that there was absolutely no artwork on the walls of my rooms. The rooms were stark and sterile and dark and did nothing to contribute to my healing.

In contrast, I do vividly remember the artwork that surrounded my bed and couch when I convalesced at home after my second hospitalization. These three prints of my mother’s (Ruth Singley Ensign) are the ones that kept me company and that became part of my liminal dream-wake life in the days and weeks it took me to return to full functioning. Only the middle one, “Mountain Quiet,” could be considered a suitable ‘healing piece of art’ according to the Guide to Evidence-based Art. The other two, and especially “Ladder to a Room Apart” (my favorite piece of my mother’s prolific body of artwork) probably would be deemed too abstract and disturbing to be included in any institutionalized healing arts program. Perhaps hospitals could start a ‘lending art’ sort of program for patients and patients’ families to be able to choose their own healing art to display on their walls.

“My Moon Neither Rises Nor Sets” Etching/Print, 1979, Ruth Singley Ensign
“Mountain Quiet” Collograph/Print, 1989, Ruth Singley Ensign
“Ladder to a Room Apart II” Collograph/Print, 1984, Ruth Singley Ensign
Ruth Singley Ensign, artist (1927-2008). Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 1977.
Ruth Singley (Ensign). Artist. Photo credit: Jack Murray, 1942.


2 thoughts on “The Art of Healing

  1. This post really struck a chord, as my spouse (who is both an artist and a public health professional) is recovering from a recent stroke. Is there a way I could get permission to make a copy (5″x 7″ or smaller) of “My Moon Neither Rises Nor Sets” to display in our home?


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