Art Therapy Program Helps People with Life-Threatening Illnesses Heal


I think art is very innate. It’s something we do from the time that we’re
young, until somebody comes along and says, “You didn’t do that right.” or “You colored outside the lines.” And people stop. As adults with cancer who come here and find
that, yes, they actually can express themselves by making art. I think they find themselves
surprised. I think they find themselves excited. I think they find themselves relaxed. At Open Art Studio, I’ve had to try to open
up and spread my wings and try to create art. Although sometimes I still joke around that
my art ends up looking like kindergarten art. Once you’ve heard the words, You have cancer,
there’s something different about being able to talk about it with some who’s experienced
the same thing. When you’re sick, especially for as long as
I’ve been, you can’t really be honest sometimes. People ask, “Well, how are you?” Well, do you really want to know that? But when you’re in a supportive group of people
who are going through the same thing, you can just be honest and you can be yourself. The program was started in 1988 when I met
an oncologist by the name of Dr. Ernie Rosenbaum who was looking for an artist to go to the
HIV unit to work with the patients. The hospital beds were all filled. And the first question I generally asked them
was, “Are you afraid?” And they would start to cry because in those
days what most people would say is, “You have to have hope.” Or, “You’re going to be fine” or “you have to
think positive.” And to be quite honest, in 1988 there was
no cure for AIDS. And so these men really needed to talk about
what they were feeling and how afraid they were of dying. Many of the artworks from that time are very
primitive looking. They’re very raw and painful. And I Ioved that they felt safe enough to express
themselves in this way. I would show it to everybody who would look
at it. This was another part of the identity of this
patient, that they weren’t just a last name and they weren’t just a disease of HIV, but
that they had a whole life. Ninety-nine percent of the patients that we
see today have cancer. We see patients many who talk about the only
time they get out of bed each week is to come to the Open Art Studio because there they
find a community of people who are coping with the same thing they are coping with,
who truly understand what it looks like and feels like to be living with a life-threatening
illness. The art that I do, it encourages me to keep
fighting and to be grateful and to find the good things. We always joke that people who come to Art
for Recovery never leave. So I’ve been coming during treatment but since
then I haven’t had any treatment. But I still come. I don’t think that they’d ever be able to
get rid of me. Art truly has given me a voice. It’s connected to your spirit and your soul. Art’s power is amazing.

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