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.


Harborview Art Walk and Ekphrasis

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Harborview Medical Center, Seattle Photo: Josephine Ensign/2015

What do art and poetry and Seattle’s largest public hospital have to do with each other? My colleague, poet Suzanne Edison, and I set out together this week on a mission to find possible answers to that question. We spent a half day doing our own art walk through the lovely and eclectic collection of public art at Harborview Medical Center in downtown Seattle. Then we sat in one of the hospital’s street-side cafes facing the Medic One emergency bays, sipped coffee amidst the occasional swirl of red lights and sirens, and wrote Ekphastic poetry in response to pieces of art that particularly moved us.

Our wonderful King County-based arts and culture organization, 4Culture, has a useful webpage with links showing photographs and describing some of the major pieces of art at Harborview. As they state:

“The Public Art Collection at Harborview has been growing since 1977 and is based on the belief that the arts can counterbalance the emotional, psychological, technological and institutional intensities of the medical center by reducing stress and conveying a sense of individual dignity and worth upon all who enter its doors.”

In choosing the artwork for display in public spaces–busy hallways, specialty clinics, and the numerous waiting room areas–careful consideration is given to things like inclusion of a diversity of artists, artistic styles, and themes. Peggy Weiss, who directs the art program at Harborview, explained to me that they have to try and balance having art pieces be interesting and healing across the wide range of patient populations they serve. (See my previous blog post “A Photo Ode to Harborview” from 1-31-15 for another ‘take’ on Harborview and for photos of its outdoors View Park artwork).

I took photographs of pieces of art and of particular spaces inside and outside the main Harborview (old) hospital, being careful to exclude any people in order to respect patient (and staff and patient family member’s) privacy. Here are some photos of art that I found most engaging and moving:

Artist: Dempsey Bob “The Wolf Helper” 1999 cast bronze and horsehair location: atrium in main hospital. Photo: Josephine Ensign/2015.
Artist: Sultan Mohamed “Royal Family,” 1997 oil on canvas The placard explains that he was inspired by the saying by Ethiopian elders, “Religious beliefs are an individual right but the country belongs to everyone.” Location: in hallway outside entrance to cafeteria Main hospital.
Artist: Peggy Vanbianchi “Journey: Hands” Mixed Media Location: waiting room of Radiology/outpatient, second floor of main hospital
Artist: Peggy Vanbianchi “Journey: Journal” mixed media Location: waiting room of Radiology outpatient department second floor of Main hospital.

This piece, ‘Journal,’ with its collection of enigmatic words, such as ‘refuge,’ ‘passage,’ ‘quest,’ ‘search,’ and ‘restore,’ lent itself to our first writing prompt: Take a word from the journal and write from it. I chose ‘refuge’ and wrote a free form poem that took me in surprising directions. The other writing prompts that we came up with were: 1) Write as if two pieces of art are in conversation, 2) Take one piece of art and write from its perspective, and 3) Have a figure in a piece of art be in conversation with the artist.

My main poem that came out of our art walk/Ekphrastic poetry writing day is titled “Harborview Refuge,” and has somehow manifested itself back into its own piece of art of the same name. Using my black and white photographs on various photo transfers (packing tape and acrylic gel medium), along with bits of my poem written on strips of bandage tape, here is my work-in-progress:

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As you can see from these three photographs included in my mixed-media art piece, I am taken by the Art Deco architecture and details of Harborview’s main hospital, which opened in 1931. The almost Gothic gargoyle-looking figure on the right adorns the top of the pillars at the main entrance to the ‘old hospital,’ next to the emergency department.

Harborview Medical center has a tradition of ‘poetry happens.’ Seattle-based writer Wendy Call was a Harborview writer-in-residence in 2010/2011. She worked on a project Harborview Haiku and American Sentences. As part of her project, Wendy shared her poetry with patients and staff and also encouraged them to write their own haiku/American Sentences.

And for anyone who wants to read some recent examples of ekphrastic poetry (and perhaps be inspired to write/submit your own poem in response to a photograph), take a look at Rattle‘s Ekphrasis Challenge.