How creative projects can ease the angst of illness
In many ways, art is the opposite of illness.
You’ve got no choice about being sick, and not much voice in what happens next. You feel helpless, anxious, sometimes confused, often bored. Illness is about loss, even if it’s just a loss of your sense of well-being.
Making art, on the other hand, adds something new to the world. It takes your mind off yourself, catches you up in the flow, puts you in control. You’re making choices; you’re expressing yourself.
Art, we’ve finally realized, belongs in a hospital.
In 2007, artist Bunny Burson donated money to Barnes-Jewish Hospital to launch the Arts + Healthcare program. Its coordinator, Sarah Colby, came in with bold plans. Then she started chatting with hospital staff, and she found quite a few already pursuing artistic projects on their own initiative.
A respiratory therapist, for example, had been making art with her cystic fibrosis and lung-transplant patients because she felt it calmed them. She offered them outlines and they created mandalas, “sacred circles” of Sanskrit origin that are now used for relaxation, reflection, and stress relief. “Their way of moving through, choosing colors, was revealing,” Colby says, “and there’s a wonderful wholeness about the imagery.”
Those mandalas went right up on the wall. Colby has two exhibition spaces, one in the Schoenberg Pavilion and one in the main lobby of the hospital. She also travels, pushing a cart of art supplies through the hospital corridors to surprise people. She gives out painted/visual journals—“People just put color down in a sketchbook rather than having to spill their guts using writing”—and sends patients home with art kits.
For the radiation/oncology waiting room, she’s bought a button- and magnet-maker. Now, instead of sitting in a chair, sick with dread, people can focus on making tiny, circular collages. “You want something quick that isn’t intimidating,” Colby explains. “A lot of people hear the word ‘art’ and shy away.”
That happens less and less often, now. A lab technician recently offered Colby a series of poems about the hospital. A former Siteman patient offered an exhibit of sticks he’d sculpted into graceful forms. And she’s teaching brief art classes for almost 300 oncologist staff, so they can understand its possibilities.
“This community of 9,500 employees need art as much as the patients do,” Colby says. “The hospital campus can be fairly chaotic and confusing.” Art slows and orders, injects beauty and meaning. “Art humanizes,” Colby says. “It can surprise and delight you.”
She’s not immune. Dr. Deborah Parks, who sings with the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus, helped start a music series at the hospital for Sunday afternoons once a month, when people are on edge waiting for Monday’s test results. The chorus director, Amy Kaiser, put together a special program: Brahms’ “Der Gang Zum Liebchen,” Harald Arlen’s “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”… By the time the chorus reached the spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning,” both Colby and the security guard standing next to her were crying.