About a decade ago, Lisa Abia-Smith, education director at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, created an art workshop aimed at helping student athletes – who faced the dual stressors of academics and athletics – decompress. The session was about 90 minutes long and designed around a single art project — a self-portrait.
Art of the Athlete, both the workshop and associated art exhibit, became a regular program at the Schnitzer museum. It was also the unofficial beginning of Art Heals.
The Art of Being Well: Highlights of the Museum’s Programs for Wellbeing, currently on display at the museum in Eugene, contains self-portraits by athletes – as well as art by physicians, hospice volunteers, and participants from other workshops that Art Heals now offers. The exhibit runs through Jan. 28, and if you’d like to meet some of the artists, there will be a reception for them, and their art, at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 11.
Since becoming an official program in 2016, Art Heals has expanded its reach outside of UO, partnering with Dr. Elizabeth Lahti at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, and with Anna Looney, PhD, a certified mind-body coach in Albany. The program evolves each time it partners with a new person or institution, but the philosophy behind it remains the same: Creating art can be a tool for helping people feel well.
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Participants in Art Heals workshops, which are held via Zoom and at various locations in the Willamette Valley, often are referred through health agencies. They may be dealing with traumatic circumstances, such as hospice workers caring for the terminally ill or patients dealing with their own cancer diagnosis. The program is not easy to describe because it isn’t just one thing. Abia-Smith said Art Heals is an “umbrella term for classes or workshops or experiences that target university students, medical care providers, patients, and general community members.”
The benefits of creating art are myriad. According to the Art Heals website: “Arts education and cultural engagement have the potential to contribute to an increased quality of life and well-being. Visual arts can be utilized as a tool for communication or a platform for self-expression. Engaging in art-making activities can improve fine and gross motor skills, and increase strength, coordination, and endurance while expanding range of motion. Creating art also has the potential to elevate mood, relieve stress and anxiety, and inspire positive growth.”
There is no fee to participate, as Art Heals workshops are funded by grants. Art supplies are free, too, and during the pandemic – when workshops began on Zoom – were delivered to pick-up spots or sent to homes. Benefactors who have aided the program include the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., the Tykeson Family Charitable Trust, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Looking at the Art Heals website, you find “prompts,” such as, “Draw what the term Connection means to you.” The prompt could lead to an abstract artwork or a realistic picture. Whatever the results, the experience leads participants to create a picture meaningful to them.
Looney thinks taking time for oneself in this way is necessary for people who, for example, are otherwise consumed by caregiving. “Art Heals is a gift,” said Looney, a certified mind-body medicine coach who follows the methodology of Dr. James Gordon, founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine. (Gordon was chair of the Commission on Alternative Medicine Policy under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.)
Looney gives 12-week mind-body medicine workshops that are differently designed for the needs of various groups. Working with Samaritan Health Services, she includes meditation sessions, intentional breathing, guided visualization, and expressive dancing.
She brings in Art Heals for her 13th week as an optional session. To her, it is a “beautiful compliment” for people who have spent the previous three months in her workshops.
Patti Haile’s husband was suffering complications from cancer and needed hospice when she took Looney’s workshop for caregivers. Haile said she would not have taken Art Heals if not for Looney’s recommendation. She has participated in three workshops since then, the first early in the pandemic on Zoom. She picked up her art supplies and brought them home.
From the start, she said, it “woke up the feeling it was OK to have fun.”
She painted in one session and made multimedia works in others. One artwork was designed around the idea of a bridge. She was asked to think about where she’d been and where she wanted to go, then represent those things visually using an image of a bridge.
Wanting to continue to make art apart from Art Heals workshops, she looked to Pinterest for ideas and found a technique for getting pigment by pounding flowers. It changed the way she looks at flowers – and even weeds. Now when she sees a dandelion, it isn’t as something unwanted to be thrown away, but as a potential source of color.
Like Haile, Karla Chambers was not formally trained as an artist, but she leads many of the Art Heals workshops. She co-owns and manages Stahlbush Island Farms with her husband, Bill. Together they sustainably cultivate 5,000 acres in the Willamette Valley and put out about 30 products containing their produce. Her only art training was a 3-day painting workshop (not connected to Art Heals) taken while on vacation in Montana; she hasn’t stopped making art since that trip. She puts time aside each day to paint and is represented by galleries in San Francisco and New York.
Chambers met Abia-Smith when the Schnitzer museum held an exhibit of her work in 2014. Now Abia-Smith considers the self-taught artist a partner of Art Heals.
Mozell Evenhus, a caregiver to her disabled sister, was introduced to Art Heals through Looney’s mind-body medicine sessions, and took a class led by Chambers. Taking the workshop with others, she said, “knowing that you’re not alone, is medicine no one else can provide.” As with Haile, she never tried an art class before either, and now she makes art “all the time.”
In 2019, Abia-Smith reached out to OHSU to work with medical students. She wound up partnering with Lahti, the director of Narrative Medicine at OHSU, to develop a curriculum medical students would be required to take as part of their four-year program. Lahti described narrative medicine as a practice that recognizes “the whole person, not just their disease.”
“Narrative medicine is as important a skill as learning to read an X-ray or an EKG,” she said.
Art Heals focuses on visual art, but narrative medicine incorporates all mediums and is particularly interested in how artists tell stories, no matter what their medium. Whether studying literature, film, comic books, or paintings, narrative medicine helps to hone physicians’ listening and observing techniques.
For example, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals was integrated into the curriculum. Lorde’s book is a memoir about what it was like having breast cancer as a Black lesbian and feminist. Students reading the book, said Lahti, would be asked to see the illness from the point of view of the person having it and perhaps consider whether the author reminded them of any patient they had treated.
Lahti and Abia-Smith kept a record of student work before and after narrative medicine skills were introduced. They presented their findings in June at an academic conference at the Sorbonne in Paris, showing that medical students’ performances improved after using skills learned through the arts. Lahti and Abia-Smith continue to work together, as they are finishing a manuscript about their experience.
Tyrell Crosby participated in a student athlete workshop when he was a UO student and junior offensive lineman. “I couldn’t draw a stick figure,” he said. But that didn’t matter, because participants were shown how to transfer their images, so they could represent themselves in terms of things they found significant to their identity. He enjoyed the experience so much that he volunteered afterward to mentor children with disabilities in a different workshop.
“It’s a pay-it-forward mentality,” said Abia-Smith.
It’s also something more, apart from art or volunteering. It’s what happens when you try something you never thought you would. Haile said Art Heals changed the way she looked at the world. The experience of doing something completely new can open your eyes to all sorts of possibilities.
That’s true for medicine as well as art. Lahti, who trains medical students to treat patients as if they are fully human, never intended to be a doctor. Her father was a physician, but she was not interested in medicine. Then she had a transformative experience.
She was a high school English and Spanish teacher when she accompanied her father on a working trip to Peru. There, she translated patients’ stories into English. Hearing them made her want to do something more than translate. It made her want to help turn their stories around.